Friday, October 24, 2008

Bison reintroduction on its way to reality

Coordination has been the key to an Alaska Department of Fish & Game goal of reintroducing wood bison to the state. Fifteen years ago when the project was initiated, Wildlife Planner Randy Rogers and Project Biologist Bob Stephenson were determined to employ the best practices of natural resources management. They began their pursuit of knowledge by sitting down with Native elders who shared stories about bison in Interior Alaska—what the Athabascan name was for the animal, how the hair was used as thread, and hides served as floor coverings. Apparently the bison had been a big feature of the Athabascan economy into the 1800s. “The story got more interesting,” Stephenson said.

A Pleistocene subspecies of bison lived in Alaska for 400,000 years, evolving into the wood bison about 10,000 years ago. The creatures are still a good fit here, Stephenson said. “They co-exist with moose and other wildlife. The predation on wood bison is low.”

While it was originally thought that the largest land mammal in North America had died out in Alaska thousands of years ago, carbon dating tests on bison bones proved that the last herd was still roaming until 170 years ago.

This meshed with the tales from Athabascan elders and made Fish & Game more determined than ever to proceed. Consulting with Canadians who conducted a successful reintroduction, the men learned the steps to take to make the dream real. Why they want to do it is simple:

•re-establish a native species and enhance the ecological wildlife diversity
•help with bison conservation
•enhance wildlife viewing
•re-establish a large herbivore to benefit the northern grazing systems (beneficial nutrient cycling)

Nearly every topic of possible concern has been carefully taken into consideration. Numerous sessions were held with such varied organizations as Doyon, US Fish & Wildlife Service, Safari Club International, Wildlife Conservation Society, the American Bison Society, World Wildlife Fund, the Turner Endangered Species Fund. The Wood Bison Restoration Advisory Group included village representatives, Fish & Game advisors, sportsmen’s organizations, environmental groups, and people with animal welfare interests.

UAF Associate Professor of Outdoor Recreation Peter Fix prepared a cost/benefit analysis, showing the project well worth the investment. An environmental review was concluded in April 2007. Today, 84 bison brought from Canada are quarantined at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center at Portage Glacier. The animals come from one of the few remaining herds that is “pure,” with no cattle strains mixed in. Hay is provided by the Matanuska Experiment Farm at nominal cost. Stephenson called the hay “a lifesaver.”

The first release is planned for the spring of 2010 in the Minto Flats. The other two areas targeted for future releases are the Yukon Flats and the Lower Innoko River. Stephenson and Rogers expect the herds to grow and flourish once released. They referred to the selected habitats as “paradise” for the animals.

Questions remain for the future. Currently, the wood bison is listed as an endangered species, so hunting practices will need to be resolved. It would be at least a dozen years before the harvest could be regulated, if at all. “We have made a fundamental pledge to develop principles to guide the harvest,” Rogers said. “We will manage for abundance, meet the subsistence needs, and I think there will be enough for everybody."

Further reading:
"Wood Bison Restoration in Alaska: An Opportunity to Bring Back a Native Species"
Wood Bison Restoration in Alaska, Alaska Department of Fish & Game
"Wood bison: Giant blast from the past," Anchorage Daily News article
"Alaska closer to reintroducing once-extinct wood bison to Interior" Fairbanks Daily News-Miner article
Alaska Department of Fish & Game Bison Restoration contact information
Endangered Species website

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