Alaska Fish & Wildlife News
October 2006

Wood Bison Restoration in Alaska

By Riley Woodford
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Wood bison at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center near Girdwood. These bison may form a wild, free ranging Alaska herd, or wood bison may be imported from Canada.Bob Stephenson photo.

A few hundred years ago, massive wood bison and musk oxen roamed the meadows of Interior Alaska. Steller sea cows and spectacled cormorants inhabited Aleutian waters. But by 1900, these animals were gone.

It’s too late to bring back the Steller sea cow and the spectacled cormorant – these animals are extinct. And while musk oxen and wood bison were extirpated from Alaska, populations survived in Greenland and Canada. In the 1930s, musk oxen were reintroduced to Alaska, and now several thousand animals inhabit about six different regions of the state.

Many Alaskans hope the same thing can happen with wood bison. These oversize cousins to the plains bison are the largest land animal in North America and still inhabit a few areas in western Canada. Bob Stephenson, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game Yukon Flats area biologist, began work on wood bison reintroduction in the early 1990s, in partnership with tribal councils and others. ADFG has found that wood bison restoration has broad appeal and is supported by Native groups, hunters, conservation organizations and biologists outside the department of Fish and Game. But times have changed since the days of the musk oxen restoration, and reintroducing wood bison to Alaska has met some surprising hurdles.

Key issues that must be addressed for the project to move forward include: a U.S. Department of Agriculture ban on importing bovines into the U.S. from Canada because of concerns about “mad cow” disease; disease testing and health certification requirements for wood bison stock; and concern among some development interests that wood bison will somehow be included on the U.S. list of endangered species and affect oil and gas development in areas where bison may be reintroduced.

Initial efforts identified the Yukon Flats as the preferred location to reintroduce wood bison to Alaska. The area is north of Fairbanks, east of the Dalton Highway and includes large areas north and south of the Yukon River. About 40 animals would be released initially on private land near villages within the boundaries of the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge. As the herd grows, wood bison would disperse onto refuge lands, ultimately resulting in a free-ranging, sustainable wild herd that would provide hunting and wildlife viewing opportunities. An additional obstacle to restoring wood bison in this area is a preliminary determination by the US Fish and Wildlife Service in 1997 that wood bison restoration in not compatible with the purposes of the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge. ADFG has encouraged the USFWS to re-evaluate this position and join in cooperative efforts to consider wood bison restoration on the Yukon Flats.

“Wood bison restoration is an outstanding wildlife conservation opportunity for the State of Alaska which deserves a thorough evaluation,” said ADFG Interior Regional Supervisor David James.

Anticipated benefits include helping ensure the long-term survival of wood bison, enhancing Alaska's wildlife resources by restoring a key indigenous grazing animal, reestablishing a historic, cultural connection between bison and people in Alaska, restoring biological and habitat diversity and natural processes, and providing benefits to Alaska's people and economy. Wood bison herds would provide a basis for sustainable development, including opportunities for local tourism or hunting and other guiding businesses.

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A young wood bison walks with his mother. Photo by Bob Stephenson

Because it was uncertain if the USFWS would change its position on wood bison restoration on Yukon Flats, the department expanded the scope of the project to consider other areas in Interior Alaska. Biologist Craig Gardner conducted an inventory of potential wood bison habitat and identified two additional areas that are now also being considered as potential restoration sites. One is Minto Flats west of Fairbanks, much of which is a State Game Refuge managed by ADF&G. The other is along the lower Innoko and Yukon Rivers near the communities of Holy Cross and Shageluk.

“We may encounter complications at any of these sites, but we’re trying to move forward,” said Randy Rogers, an ADF&G wildlife planner.

There has been concern that the reintroduction of wood bison could somehow interfere with potential oil and gas development. The Native corporation Doyon is looking into possible oil development near the Yukon Flats, and oil development is being explored on Minto Flats as well.

Practically speaking, Rogers said there is no biological conflict between wood bison and oil field development. “There’s no biological incompatibility, no reason why we can’t have both,” he said.

Central to this concern is that if wood bison were listed as an endangered species in the United States, protecting them could limit development. That consideration was addressed in October 2004. The USFWS determined that should wood bison be restored to Alaska, the Endangered Species Act would not need to be modified to add the imported population as endangered or threatened. This means the bison would have the same legal status as other resident wildlife. ADFG staff is continuing to work with Doyon and others to ease concerns about possible constraints on development from wood bison restoration.

Another hurdle is the ban on importing bovines because of concerns about “mad cow” disease. Stephenson and others on the ADFG wood bison team are addressing those concerns and working on getting an exemption to the ban. He’s working on an agreement with the U.S. Forest Service to establish a holding facility near Girdwood.

“We need to hold the animals for about a year to make sure they don’t transmit any diseases to wild or agricultural animals,” he said. “We are looking at 100 percent safe assurance for disease.”

Stephenson is hopeful that Alaska will get animals from Canadian herds, but said there is another option. Prior to the import ban, a farmer near Delta acquired a small herd of Canadian wood bison. These 22 animals are now housed near Girdwood at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. Those animals could form the basis of a wild Alaska herd – with a little outside help.

“If we never get border opened, we could consider getting semen from Canadian wood bison to expand genetic diversity of that small herd,” Stephenson said.

In spring 2005 Fish and Game established the Wood Bison Restoration Advisory Group to involve diverse wildlife users in decisions about restoring wood bison to Alaska. The group includes representatives of fish and game advisory committees, local residents, and Native, sportsman and environmental organizations and animal welfare interests. The group met twice for two-day public meetings in April and June 2005.

The meetings provided a public forum for an exhaustive review of information by numerous experts on wood bison and associated wildlife and land management issues. The presenters included ADFG, USFWS and BLM staff; Native organizations, eight faculty members with expertise in various fields from the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, the Alaska State Veterinarian and a biologist from the Yukon Department of Environment with first hand experience in wood bison restoration. At the conclusion of these meetings members of the advisory group agreed to recommend moving forward with wood bison restoration in Alaska and continuing to pursue restoration at all three potential release sites.

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Wood bison in Canada. ADF&G photo.

“Public comment on the proposal to restore wood bison has demonstrated broad public support and virtually no opposition,” Rogers said.

Residents of Yukon Flats have supported the project, since the mid-1990’s and the department has received resolutions and letters of support from several tribal councils. Other organizations who support wood bison restoration include: Canada’s National Recovery Team for Wood Bison, the Canadian Wildlife Service, Environment Canada, International Union for the Conservation of Nature/Species Survival Commission- Bison Specialist Group, Alaska Outdoor Council, Safari Club International, the Wildlife Conservation Society, Tanana Chiefs Conference, Eastern Regional Subsistence Advisory Council, Fish and Game Advisory Committees representing the three regions being considered for wood bison restoration.

Currently the Department of Fish and Game is completing an Environmental Review (ER) of wood bison restoration in Alaska, and will be looking for public review and comment. A summary of key points in the ER will be provided in a forthcoming issue of the project newsletter, Wood Bison News.

ADFG proposes to proceed with efforts to restore wood bison in Alaska and continue to consider all three of the potential restoration sites. The ADFG proposed to initiate site-specific planning efforts for both the Yukon Flats and Minto Flats locations while also increasing efforts to discuss wood bison restoration with residents of the lower Yukon/Innoko River area and evaluate local support for bison restoration in this area.

In proceeding with the wood bison restoration program, ADFG is committed to: Following the disease testing and health certification requirements established by the Alaska State Veterinarian and U.S. Department of Agriculture; Conducting site-specific planning efforts to provide additional opportunity for public review and comment and close involvement of local residents and other wildlife users; Conducting a cost-effective and affordable biological monitoring program to monitor the wood bison population and potential wildlife and ecological impacts; continuing to work with others to develop measures that provide reasonable assurance that wood bison restoration will not impact other resource development activities due to provisions of the Endangered Species Act; and working to ensure that all wildlife users have an opportunity to share in the benefits of wood bison restoration.

Once comments are received, a decision will be made about proceeding with wood bison restoration and possible locations.

For more information on wood bison, to get on the mailing list for Wood Bison News, or to get a copy of the wood bison Environmental Review contact Randy Rogers, at (907) 459-7335, or write to Fish and Game at 1300 College Rd., Fairbanks, AK, 99701.

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