Alaska gets go-ahead to reintroduce wood bison

Suzanna Caldwell

After almost two decades of preparation, it looks like wood bison will finally be reappearing in the Alaska wilderness.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published a final rule Wednesday allowing the reintroduction of a "non-essential experimental" population of wood bison into three areas of Alaska.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game expects to start introducing the first animals to the Innoko River area in western Alaska in spring 2015. The new regulation will take effect June 6.

It marked an exciting turn for Fish and Game managers, as well as staff at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, who have been raising wood bison for the last eight years with plans for reintroduction.

"We never thought it would be 2014 when we got them in 2006," said Mike Miller, executive director of the conservation center.

The animals were present in Alaska for almost 10,000 years before disappearing over the course of several hundred years due to unregulated hunting and changes in habitat distribution. Weighing in at almost 2,000 pounds, wood bison are the largest land mammal in North America.

Doug Vincent-Lang, acting director of the Fish and Game Division of Wildlife Conservation, said state lawyers are currently reviewing the rule, but he doesn't expect any "poison pills" in the regulations, which have been in the works for almost 10 years.

He said things got complicated when a new analysis of the Endangered Species Act by FWS argued that the species, despite being classified as nonessential and experimental, faced scrutiny. Under the regulations, it would have placed stricter burdens on landowners in the region if they wanted to pursue development in areas the animals inhabited.

Under the new rules, the state will be in charge of managing the animals under more "relaxed" requirements of a section in the act. The state will be able to manage the species with exemptions for incidental effects of development, land management and regulated hunting.

Vincent-Lang said the primary landowner, Doyon Inc., had some concerns about possible litigation involving the animals and resource development, especially over the Minto and Yukon flats areas that were also approved for wood bison reintroduction. He said the state agency appears to have ironed those out but will still be focusing first on the Innoko area, where Doyon has some land claims.

"We agreed that we would put them in an area with low resource potential but with a lot high-protein need," he said.

Baby wood bison are currently being born every day into the herd of about 100, Miller said. With the new rule he's hopeful that next spring about 100 of those bison will be transplanted from the center in Girdwood to the Innoko area.

Now begins the planning, something the center delayed until it was guaranteed it would be able to transport the animals. Miller said they'll now start looking at acquiring the three specially-designed trailers needed to transport the animals via C-130 aircraft.

"Who knows what it's like to fly 100 wood bison out to this area?" he said. "It feels like a good challenge, but sort of intimidating."

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