Schandelmeier: Where the bison roam (and hunters follow) in Interior Alaska

PAXSON -- My 10-dog team rounded the first corner out of the yard at a dead run. I was on the drag with both feet, but that had little effect when a big brown object emerged in the pre-dawn ice fog.

Moose? No. A bison! A big cow was directly ahead in the trail. She stood her ground until the dogs almost reached her, then wheeled and bolted into the scattered black spruce.

The dogs continued their mad run for another 400 yards before finally heeding my efforts to slow them. Moose are an everyday trail occurrence near Delta Junction, but bison are a novelty for the dogs. I continued down the trail and soon spotted where the rest of the herd had crossed.

In spite of the early snow in this part of Interior Alaska, the Delta bison herd has been late in moving from its summer range along the Delta River nearly Donnelly Dome. Most years, the herd of about 400 animals, move north and east to the state-managed bison range and the Delta Agricultural Project in late September or early October.

However, I have encountered three groups of these transplanted plains bison the past two weeks and have seen the tracks of several more. They don't waste much time feeding when traveling to their wintering areas. Good thing; it's no fun to hit a big pile of frozen buffalo poop with a dogsled traveling 20 mph.

Bison used to roam Alaska in large numbers. They didn't become extinct in this country until a few hundred years ago. The bison here then were Wood River bison. The animals that were brought to Delta from Moiese, Montana, in 1928 are bison from the Great Plains. Twenty-three were brought in originally. By the late 1940s there were 400.

Alaska began to allow hunting by permit in the early 1950s. Today, the Delta bison herd is controlled at about 400 animals. Drawing permit hunts are available to take 50 cows and an additional 50 bulls. Applications for this hunt, the most sought-after in Alaska, opened Nov. 1. The application fee is $10 and there are up to 15,000 applicants. Odds are poor, but certainly better than the Nenana Ice Classic.

Hunting opened Oct. 1 and will continue through the end of March. Hunters' success rate is typically good, especially hunters who have enough time. Mid-winter finds most animals on the bison range or near farms in the Delta Agricultural Project. Many landowners will allow hunting on their parcels for a fee -- $500 seems to be the going rate.

That seems high, but these animals cause a fair amount of crop damage at times and the farmers try to recoup a little. Compare $500 against the $2,500 to $4,500 it costs to take an animal from one of the privately owned herds in the area, and it doesn't seem quite so steep.

There are more domestic than wild bison in the Delta area, in fact. The largest private herd numbers about 300 animals.

There are a couple of other transplanted herds in Alaska. Both allow permit hunting, but difficult access makes them less attractive than the Delta hunt.

The Farewell BLM herd requires an expensive fly-out trip north of the Alaska Range. And, hunters must be prepared to carry their kill by backpack to the nearest airstrip.

The Chitna/Copper River herd, on the other hand, is best reached by riverboat. The bison are almost always on Native-owned land that requires a $1,500 access fee. It is a tough area to hunt with a fairly low success rate.

Given the popularity of the Delta hunt, one might wonder why the state doesn't let the herd increase to allow greater hunting opportunities? Conflict with the agricultural project is the answer. Problems began in the 1950s. Finally, in the early '80s, the state appropriated $1.5 million to create a bison winter range. A 90,000-acre parcel was set aside. Nearly 3,000 acres were cleared and presently 500 acres are fertilized and managed to keep the bison, which can weigh nearly a ton, from neighboring croplands.

The project has been successful for the most part. There is still some crop damage, but it is mostly isolated, as the farmers have also learned how to prevent damage, and most of the bison stop and feed on the fescue and bluegrass planted on the bison range. The range is managed almost exclusively by drawing permit fees.

The Delta Junction businesses get an economic boost from hunters who travel from afar for the rare opportunity to hunt bison.

Applications for the drawing hunt closes on Dec. 15. A little hunting pressure on this transplanted herd is good. It reminds them that there are predators and keeps them moving when they see that dog team coming down the trail.

John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race.