The ground is barely white. Trapping season has opened in the Interior game management units and early trappers are still in tennis shoes. Snowmobiles are sitting on green grass in front of the homes of optimists. Ice fishermen have no place to stand.
The only happy people are Delta Junction bison hunters.
Warm temperatures and no snow are contributing to unprecedented success for buffalo hunters. Three years ago it was well below zero by now. The past couple of seasons it has been relatively warm, but with enough snow to make vehicle travel difficult on trails.
This year the back trails are frozen hard enough to make travel easy. The bison moved earlier than usual and are scattered throughout the Delta Junction Bison Range and agricultural district. Hunters working the state-managed range are having very good success — half of the 40 buffalo taken so far have come from the range.
Under the direction of Alaska Department of Fish & Game, the Department of Natural Resources conducted a controlled burn on parts of the range last spring. Three or four hundred acres of oats were planted along with about a hundred acres of turnips.
Bison love turnips. They don't eat the turnip, but they browse the tops to the ground. They also spend considerable time on the oats. Fish & Game plants the oats relatively late because it's not interested in having the plants go to seed. The bison want the leafy portion, not the grain.
The animals were on the range early this year. Most of the herd arrived on the range and in the farm districts by mid-August, continuing the trend of the past few years.
Delta bison summer along the Delta River flats. They calve on the open bars and feed on the abundant sedges the river bars offer. The migration to and from the river is not done en masse but rather over about a month's time. Groups between three and 40 animals make their way over the Donnelly highlands and disperse into the Delta Barley Project.
Delta Junction area biologist Bob Schmidt estimates there are approximately 450 bison in the Delta herd. The herd size is decided in large part by the Delta Bison Working Group, a group of area stakeholders. There are agricultural folks, hunters and Fish & Game personnel adding their input.
In addition to herd size, the group discusses the makeup of the buffalo population. Ideally there should be about 50 bulls for every 100 cows, although with politics helping drive the decisions, biology is sometimes forced to take a back seat.
This fall, the ratio is closer to 80 bulls per 100 cows. Ninety "any bison" permits were issued in an attempt to bring the bull population closer to the ideal. This is a boon for hunters, since most of the permit-holders prefer to take the larger bulls.
This year saw a record number of applicants for Delta Bison permits — 26,803, making it the most popular hunt in the state.
A change in the way permit hunts are managed makes the huge number of applications a bit misleading. A single hunter can now put in up to six applications for the same hunt. There is no way to know how many folks sent in multiple chances for the lottery.
The pleasant nature of the Delta Bison hunt, plus the ease of vehicle hunting, will ensure its ongoing popularity. Add excellent bird hunting and a plethora of hares and you have the makings for an excellent weekend.
Hunters who don't find an animal in the state-managed range will have little trouble finding a bison in the agricultural project. A few farmers allow hunters on their fields free of charge, although most charge a fee. Either way, this is a relatively inexpensive hunt given the high success rate.
There were 47 successful bison hunters in 2016. This year should eclipse that number before the end of the November.
With the hunt open until the end of March, it's looking like a record season. Should that be the case, hunt applications will continue to climb. Increased popularity will mean more funding for management. More turnips could keep the animals on the state fields a bit longer, thus minimizing damage to agricultural fields.
What is good for farmers will translate into "great" for hunters. With little or no crop damage to contend with, the Delta Bison Working Group could be open to the suggestion of a herd increase.