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Feds Nix Wood Bison in Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge

Tim Mowry / Fairbanks Daily News-Miner / June 8, 2005

Despite what it acknowledges is a "compelling case" that wood bison roamed the Yukon Flats as recently as 100 years ago, the federal government doesn't want them romping around a national wildlife refuge.

That was the message Ted Heuer, manager of the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge, delivered on Tuesday in a meeting at Wedgewood Resort to discuss the possible restoration of wood bison to Alaska.

"The bottom line is we are not convinced the reintroduction of wood bison to the wildlife refuge would be a good biological decision," Heuer told the Wood Bison Restoration Advisory Group. "Our goal is to maintain the natural ecological processes, not focus on a species that was there 500 or 700 years ago.

"We assume the species out there right now are the natural diversity," he said. John Hagen/News-Miner DAMP DATA--Workers spread out wet site reports and research documentation at the University of Alaska Museum of the North after a leaking water pipe drenched the collection Monday morning.

The meeting, which concludes today, is part of the state's continuing effort to restore wood bison to Alaska, a project that has been in the works for almost 15 years. The state has formed an advisory group to make recommendations on whether or not to proceed with the plan.

The state Department of Fish and Game has identified the Yukon Flats north of Fairbanks as the preferred range for the bison. Not only does it feature the best habitat for the animals, it also represents what wildlife biologists say is the animals' last stomping grounds in Alaska.

But the area includes the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge, which means any bison re-introduction would be contingent upon approval from the federal government.

The feds have been reluctant to support the project since its inception because they fear introducing the animals could change the ecosystem.

"We have legal mandates to conserve fish and wildlife populations in their natural diversity," Heuer explained.

The argument over what is natural has gone on 14 years now.

The feds feel the animals disappeared as a result of natural environmental changes while the state argues that humans played a role in their demise by overhunting the animals.

The state bases much of its case on the oral accounts handed down over generations and retrieved from 13 Native elders in seven different villages on the Yukon Flats, who remember stories told by their parents and grandparents about how bison were an important part of the culture at one time.

Refuge officials have been reluctant to accept oral history as proof of the animals' existence and importance to Natives. There is no written account of wood bison on the Yukon Flats and there have been no archaeological finds of wood bison bones or horns, Heuer noted.

But Craig Gerlach, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks who was responsible for gathering much of the oral history of wood bison from Native elders, said there is little doubt bison played an important role on the Yukon Flats at one time.

"We have a very robust, rich and consistent set of oral narratives that have been collected in as unbiased a way as we can," said Gerlach. "It's been analyzed rigorously and skeptically at every turn.

"I think the fact we can go back 200 years leaves no doubt bison were a functional part of the their lifestyle and subsistence economy," said Gerlach.

There is also oral evidence that Natives played a role in the expatriation of wood bison, Gerlach said.

"In several accounts we had people who told us, 'We ate them up. We hunted them out,'" said Gerlach. "Not everyone says that, but enough do so there has to be something to it."

The state hasn't formally petitioned the feds to put wood bison on refuge lands. It also has identified the Minto Flats and Innoko River as possible reintroduction sites.

Following today's meeting, the advisory group will be making a recommendation.

"I'm real hopeful we'll find someplace in Alaska where these animals will be welcomed by all parties," said David James, regional director for the Division of Wildlife Conservation in Fairbanks.

Experts on Monday speculated on what kind of impact wood bison would have on the Yukon Flats.

The bison could have positive and negative effects on the millions of ducks that nest in the flats, said Mark Lindberg, an assistant professor of wildlife biology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks who studies waterfowl in Minto Flats.

Bison are grazers and waterfowl depend on grass and sedges for cover from predators, noted Lindberg.

"If that cover is reduced it could be a negative," he said.

The animals could also create travel corridors for predators like fox, making it easier for them to hunt nests.

On the other hand, the bison' presence and their grazing habits would likely increase the amount and quality of grasslands and meadows, which would provide more cover for birds.

As it is, nesting survival rates fluctuate a great deal. In Minto Flats, for example, survival rates have varied by as much as 40 percent over the last seven years. What difference wood bison would have is hard to predict.

"Bison want to graze in grassland habitat and ducks like to nest in grassland habitat," Lindberg said. "I can't sit here and tell you it's going to be a positive or a negative."

Likewise, UAF professor Terry Chapin, who is studying the effects global warming is having on Alaska, said it is impossible to determine what effect wood bison would have on the ecosystem because that ecosystem is constantly changing. The ecosystem refuge officials are trying to protect now may be totally different in 50 years and may be more suited to wood bison than moose or other wildlife.

If the climate continues to warm, Chapin said it's likely the amount of grassland and meadows, perfect habitat for wood bison, will increase.

News-Miner staff writer Tim Mowry can be reached at 459-7587 or tmowry@newsminer.com .

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