FAIRBANKS — The re-introduction of wood bison in Alaska has been delayed for at least another year, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is paying for it.
The federal agency recently forked over $200,000 to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to maintain a captive herd of more than 100 wood bison for another year at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center in Girdwood south of Anchorage.
The hope is it will give federal and state agencies enough time to negotiate a special rule that will make the animals exempt from the Endangered Species Act when they are finally set loose in Alaska. The state has been holding the bison at the AWCC for more than three years as part of a plan to restore the shaggy beasts to the Alaska landscape. The Department of Fish and Game imported 53 bison from Elk Island National Park in Alberta, Canada, in June 2007 to complement a herd of 33 wood bison that were already being held at the AWCC.
The herd size has since grown to 103 with the addition of calves the past four years.
The Fish and Wildlife Service gave the state $200,000 to maintain the herd for another year “because we support the reintroduction and believe that it is clearly in line with our missions and mandates,” agency spokesman Bruce Woods wrote in an email. The money will cover food and veterinary costs for the herd for the next year.
The department’s original plan was to release at least 40 of the animals in one of three locations — the Yukon Flats, Minto Flats or the Innoko River Flats — in spring 2010. The most recent plan, after concerns were raised about releasing the animals in the Yukon Flats (national wildlife refuge) and Minto Flats (oil and gas development), was to release a small herd into the Innoko River Flats in western Alaska in spring 2011.
But that release has been stalled while the state waits for the Fish and Wildlife Service to approve a special rule, called a 10j rule, that would not prohibit resource development, i.e. oil and gas drilling, in areas where the bison may be released. The snag at this point is over a provision in the 10j rule that will allow future hunting of wood bison after they are released, assuming the population increases to allow for that.
“The main obstacle we are dealing with is a lack of inclusion of general hunting in the special rule,” Doug Vincent-Lang, a special assistant to ADF&G commissioner Cora Campbell and the state’s endangered species coordinator, wrote in an email.
Wood bison existed in Alaska in the 1800s before becoming extinct because of a combination of hunting and changing habitat.
There are no wood bison in the United States but they are still listed as endangered because they are listed as threatened under Canada’s Species at Risk Act, that country’s equivalent of the Endangered Species Act in the U.S. Wood bison were downlisted from endangered to threatened in Canada in 1988 but they were not downlisted in the U.S.
The fact there are no wood bison in the U.S. and they are still listed as endangered is “simply amazing,” Vincent-Lang said.
Hunting is integral
The Fish and Wildlife Service gave the state the option in March of publishing a proposed rule in the federal register by the end of April without a provision allowing future hunting or waiting for several months until the issue could be discussed further and, hopefully, resolved.
Releasing the animals without a clause that would allow hunting down the road was not an option, Vincent-Lang said.
“Hunting is a “critical element for the long-term conservation of wood bison when we put them on the landscape,” he said.
The Fish and Wildlife Service recognizes that, spokesman Bruce Woods at the Anchorage regional office said, but has yet to figure out a way to incorporate such language into the 10j rule without compromising legal requirements. The provisions of the ESA that allow designation of nonessential experimental populations are legally complex, he said.
“The service has always known that hunting would be among the ultimate goals of this re-introduction, but 10j rules are designed to aid the recovery of species listed under the Endangered Species Act and the agency is focusing on this goal,” Woods wrote in an email. “While the Fish and Wildlife Service remains committed to and supportive of the reintroduction and ultimately the hunting of wood bison in Alaska, the agency wants to provide assurances to the state that the rule establishing the population of wood bison is within the legal framework.”
Hunting is an integral part of wood bison restoration and management in Canada, where the population of wood bison has increased to approximately 4,400 animals in seven disease-free, free-ranging herds.
“Even though they’re listed in Canada as a threatened species, Canada recognizes the need for hunting,” Vincent-Lang said. “We are working closely with the USFWS to resolve this issue and remain confident that we can reach a solution.”
After numerous meetings with Native villagers in the Yukon Flats to document the existence of wood bison in Alaska in the 1800s, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game begins working on a wood bison re-introduction plan.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announces it cannot support the wood bison restoration effort because of concerns that doing so would not be compatible with the purposes of the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge. The project is put on hold.
ADF&G re-evaluates the re-introduction effort and determines it is an outstanding wildlife conservation opportunity for Alaska that should be fully examined in an open, public decision-making process. Still unsure if the feds will go along with a release in the Yukon Flats, ADF&G begins looking at other possible release sites.
ADF&G forms the Wood Bison Restoration Advisory Group, a consortium of environmentalists, Native subsistence hunters and trophy hunters, and holds a two-day public meeting to determine if there is public support for the project. The group endorses the plan and comes up with three possible release sites — the Yukon Flats, Minto Flats and Innoko River Flats.
Local advisory committees in the Minto and lower Innoko-Yukon River areas endorse the wood bison restoration plan after meeting with ADF&G. The Eastern Interior and Western Interior federal subsistence advisory councils also endorse the plan.
ADF&G initiates an evaluation of the wood bison restoration plan according to the state’s wildlife transplant policy and determines “that wood bison are an extirpated indigenous species and are native to Alaska.”
A wildlife transplant policy review committee concludes that wood bison restoration will not likely effect a significant reduction in the range, distribution, habitat, or preexisting human use of other species in Alaska.
ADF&G imports 53 wood bison — 27 females and 26 males — from Elk Island National Park in Alberta, Canada. The state used a $100,000 grant from the Turner Foundation to transport the animals by truck to Alaska, where they were released into pens at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center to serve a two-year quarantine.
After meeting with officials from Doyon, Ltd., who expressed concern that releasing wood bison on the Minto Flats could jeopardize the Native corporation’s plan to drill for oil and gas in the Nenana Basin, former state Sen. Gene Therriault, R-North Pole, introduces a resolution calling for a halt to the wood bison introduction until Alaska gets the federal reassurance it wants.
Former half-term Gov. Sarah Palin asks the departments of fish and game and natural resources to look for places other than the Minto Flats to release the wood bison because their release there could endanger oil and gas or mineral exploration, production or development under the Endangered Species Act.
A notice of the state’s intent to develop a “10j rule” that would establish wood bison as a “nonessential experimental population” is published in the federal register.
In a presentation to the Board of Game in Fairbanks, ADF&G officials say the Innoko River Flats is now the preferred release site because of concerns over the Yukon Flats and Minto Flats. Game Board chairman Cliff Judkins directs ADF&G to come up with a harvest plan for both subsistence and sport hunting before any bison are released.
The state delivers its version of the proposed 10j rule to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for review.
ADF&G announces the wood bison have been given a clean bill of health by state veterinarians after being tested multiple times for tuberculosis and brucellosis. The only thing preventing their release is the adoption of a 10j rule to make them exempt from the Endangered Species Act. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service tells the state it hopes to have the final rule in place by the end of July 2011.
Rep. Alan Dick, R-Stony River, introduces a bill — HB 186 — that would require legislative approval before the bison could be moved into the Interior. Dick says environmental groups would sue the state to make money and ensure the land where the bison are is off limits to human use. The Alaska House Resources Committee refers the bill to the Alaska House Rules Committee, where it is still sits.
Contact staff writer Tim Mowry at 459-7587.