As you near the Portage cutoff, take a look at something Alaska hasn't seen for more than 100 years -- wood bison. Our wildlife center is taking care of these magnificent animals and growing their numbers until they can be safely released into the wild. It's part of a rare collaborative effort that brings together hunters, government agencies, environmental groups and the business community.
The goal is to restore North America's largest land mammal to the meadows and boreal forests of Interior Alaska where these magnificent animals once roamed. First release into the wild could come as early as 2010.
Alaska Fish and Game Commissioner Denby Lloyd calls the wood bison restoration project "one of the most significant conservation initiatives in decades."
But this project, which enjoys enormous public support, is under assault over unfounded fears that it cannot coexist with resource development. Concerns have been raised that wood bison restoration might impede oil and gas drilling and other natural resource development projects, due to the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
The state is working in partnership with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to secure a special rule for wood bison in Alaska under Sections 10(j) and 4(d) of the Endangered Species Act. The rule would designate wood bison as a "Nonessential Experimental Population" because the Alaska stock is not essential to the survival of the species in the wild, and because the source of Alaska's wood bison stock is a captive breeding herd.
This means that wood bison habitat could not be protected as "critical habitat" and that otherwise lawful human activities (oil and gas development, etc.) would not be affected. The Department of Fish and Game is not aware of any instances where a 10(j) ruling under the ESA has been overturned by litigation and the agency will not release wood bison until this special rule is completed.
The Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center would never support a program that poses a threat to the development of Alaska's natural resources. This is not a case where a choice has to be made between developing the economy and restoring a natural ecosystem. This problem seems all too common, and it is truly unfortunate, as it strengthens the long-standing, erroneous idea that economic progress and environmental protection cannot coexist. We believe there are mutually agreeable solutions if all parties work together, and that it is in Alaska's best interest to return wood bison to their native home.
Wood bison roamed the far North for 10,000 years, but Native elders report they disappeared from Alaska around 1900. Conservation programs in Canada have increased their numbers to more than 4,000 animals and their status has been downgraded from endangered to threatened. Today, you can hunt wood bison in Canada, visit a wood bison ranch and see them when you drive the Alaska Highway.
Thirteen yearlings from the Yukon came to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center in 2003. Elk Island National Park sent another 53 last year. Today the growing herd totals 82, with 21 babies expected this spring.
The wood bison restoration project is reminiscent of the highly successful reintroduction of the musk ox in Alaska in the 1930s. The musk ox disappeared about the same time as the wood bison and has since been returned to its Alaska heritage.
Just like musk oxen now meander across the North Slope, wood bison coexist with resource extraction and development in Canada.
Alaska's best interests are best served by talking with one another instead of hurling missives and rushing legislation. We hope the Alaska Legislature tables SCR 2 as being premature.
Eighty years ago humans unintentionally removed the wood bison from nature. Now it is our responsibility to put them back.
Mike Miller is the founder and executive director of the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, located south of Anchorage near the Portage cutoff.