State ready to release wood bison, waiting on federal protection
By Tim Mowry
Fairbanks News Miner
FAIRBANKS — The state Department of Fish and Game says it is ready to release at least 40 wood bison on the lower Innoko River country in the western Interior and is just waiting for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to create protection from the Endangered Species Act for future resource development.
“There’s nothing else that can hold us back at this point,” wildlife planner Randy Rogers with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Fairbanks said this week.
The ADF&G announced a target release date of spring 2012, but that hinges on the federal government creating a special rule that will designate wood bison in Alaska as a “nonessential experimental population” under section 10j of the Endangered Species Act.
“I’m optimistic,” the state’s endangered species coordinator, Doug Vincent-Lang, said on Friday. “That’s not to say there won’t be surprise here and there but I’m confident once we get the nonessential population rule put in place and get the allowed take we would like to have associated with that rule put in place that we will be able to go ahead with the release.”
The state has been holding wood bison it imported from Canada in captivity for more than two years in anticipation of restoring the animals to Alaska, where it’s believed they roamed hundreds of years ago. The state has a herd of 89 wood bison at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center in Girdwood south of Anchorage.
“We cannot maintain this captive herd of bison indefinitely,” Rogers said.
It’s costing the state about $100,000 per year to house, feed and care for the bison, the state’s wood bison biologist, Bob Stephenson at ADF&G in Fairbanks, said.
Waiting on feds
The animals have been tested for diseases such as tuberculosis and brucellosis three times and have been given a clean bill of health by state veterinarians, Rogers said. All that remains is coming up with a management plan that addresses the future harvest of wood bison in Alaska and the regulations to deal with the Endangered Species Act.
Officials with the Fish and Wildlife Service say they are still reviewing the special rule that would designate wood bison as a nonessential population and pave the way for their release in Alaska.
“The law says you have to have a rule in place before you can release these animals,” Stephenson said.
Once the regional office in Alaska comes up with a draft rule, it must be sent to the national office in Washington, D.C. for final approval before it is published in the Federal Register, said Steve Klosiewski, deputy regional manager for the USFWS in Anchorage.
“It’s easy for us to do our work here, but the Washington office has all these various Endangered Species Act rules they have to deal with,” Klosiewski said.
Once the proposed rule is written, it must be published in the Federal Register for a 60-day public comment period, after which it could be amended before it is finalized.
“Assuming the endangered species regulations come out the way we proposed them, we should be OK to do the release in the Innoko,” Rogers said. “It’s not 100 percent guaranteed by any means. There’s still a lot of things that have to fall in place.”
The state has met several times with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials in Alaska and Vincent-Lang said the two agencies “fundamentally came into agreement on what the (10j) rule should look like.”
The Fish and Wildlife Service has told the state it hopes to have the final rule in place by the end of July.
“We’re working with the state to help them meet their timeline,” Klosiewski said.
The department recently received a $152,350 grant from the Wildlife Conservation Society for the restoration effort. The department will use the money to help develop a cooperative management plan, set up a temporary corral and move hay and supplies to the release site, and transport bison to the site.
The state settled on the lower Innoko River area, which is about 400 miles southwest of Fairbanks, after efforts to release the animals in the Yukon Flats and Minto Flats were met with resistance from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Yukon Flats) and Fairbanks Native corporation Doyon Ltd. (Minto Flats).
“That’s the way things lined up politically,” Rogers said of why the lower Innoko River was chosen as a release site.
The department’s plan calls for releasing a minimum of 40 bison. More animals could be released depending on what the prospects are for releasing animals in the Yukon Flats and Minto Flats by then, Rogers said.
“If we think we can release bison in the other sites in a two- to four-year time frame we will hold some back,” he said. “If we’re uncertain whether we’re going to be able to proceed in the other areas, we’re going to have to take more out to the Innoko so we don’t end up with crowding at the AWCC.”
While the wood bison habitat in the Yukon Flats and Minto Flats is considered better than the lower Innoko River, there is ample habitat to support a herd of at least 400 animals, according to department studies.
Doyon, which opposed the Minto Flats as a potential release site because the corporation is actively drilling for natural gas in the region, owns several hundred thousand acres in the lower Innoko River area, too, but Jim Mery, the corporation’s vice president for lands, said Doyon does not have any pending oil, gas or mineral exploration projects in the area and releasing animals there “is something we can live with.” Doyon has some done some mineral exploration in the area, primarily for gold, but not in the last five or six years, Mery said.
“The lower Innoko country would be fine with us assuming the communities want the animals down there,” he said.
Residents in local communities have been very supportive of releasing wood bison in the area, Rogers said.
The department’s tentative plan is to fly the bison to an airstrip near Shageluk, a village on the Innoko River, in March 2012. They will be held in a temporary corral and fed for about a month before being released just prior to greenup and calving. Stephenson referred to it as a “soft release.”
“The idea behind that is so they don’t just start walking when they are released,” he said. “If you hold them quietly in a new area for awhile and release them when good, green forage is not far away and they’re about to calve, then they’re kind of stuck.”
Even after being kept in a captive environment for what will be almost four years by the time they are released, Stephenson said the bison shouldn’t have any problems adjusting to life in the wild.
“Bison are hardwired,” the biologist said. “You’d have to select them genetically for generations to change them into something more like cattle.”
Even in their captive setting at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, the bison display wild behavior. Competition for feed is intense and fights between the bison are not uncommon. Eleven bison have died in the last year and a half, Rogers said. Once an animal is injured in a fight, other bison “gang up on” the weakened animal and kill it, he said.
“Overall this is a pretty natural occurrence within a bison herd,” Rogers said. “We’ve tried to get necropsies (animal autopsies) of all of these mortalities. Several have shown there have been some wounds that only can be goring from other bison. Sometimes some of the dominant bulls are pushing younger animals away and getting mean at times.”
Most of the deaths have involved young bison, he said.
The breeding season recently concluded and the department is hopeful of having a crop of about 30 new calves next spring, Roger said.
Currently there are about 10,000 wood bison in the wild in Canada and another 4,000 disease-free animals being held in captivity in Canada.
Contact staff writer Tim Mowry at 459-7587.