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Restoration of Wood Bison in Alaska OK'd, But No Site Chosen

Tim Mowry / Fairbanks Daily News-Miner / June 9, 2005

Minto Flats may be home to a herd of wood bison in the not-too-distant future.

Or not.

While a public advisory group Wednesday endorsed the state's plan to restore wood bison in Alaska, it fell short of identifying a specific location to do so.

Instead, the seven-member group recommended the state continue developing a plan to put wood bison back in any one of three areas--the Yukon Flats, the Minto Flats or the Innoko River country--and to do so as quickly as possible.

"I feel so confident in the public support we'll get bringing wood bison to Alaska that we should immediately start the process to get the permits to import and hold bison," said Oliver "Bud" Burris, a retired state wildlife biologist speaking on behalf of the Alaska Outdoor Council, as well as the Fairbanks Fish and Game Advisory Committee. "I'd hate to see this take a year or two to finalize a site and a year or two more to make arrangements to get buffalo here."

Where the bison will go if they ever do get here remains to be seen.

After two days of digesting a trough-full of information about wood bison and regurgitating it into the beginnings of a restoration plan, advisory group members failed to select a preferred site for a wood bison reintroduction.

The decision in large part was influenced by David James, regional director for the Division of Wildlife Conservation in Fairbanks, who advised the group that unexpected roadblocks could crop up at any time with any of the three proposed sites and selecting just one could slow, rather than speed up, the process.

"We could make specific plans for a specific site with specific numbers and in the final analysis we might not be able to do it because of some unanticipated obstacle," said James. "There will be conflicts and we will have to make changes."

The meeting, the second in as many months, was another step in what has been a 14-year journey by the Department of Fish and Game to bring wood bison back to Alaska.

Slightly larger than their Plains bison cousins, wood bison roamed Alaska hundreds and thousands of years ago, according to radiocarbon dates taken from bones found around the state and oral accounts of Native elders living in villages on the Yukon Flats, the last known range of wood bison in Alaska.

Currently, there are about 3,000 wood bison remaining in a handful of captive and wild herds in Canada, including a free-ranging herd of almost 600 bison in the Yukon near Whitehorse.

In an effort to gain momentum for its restoration project in Alaska, Fish and Game formed an advisory group to recommend whether to pursue the restoration effort and where to do so.

After hearing Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge manager Ted Heuer tell the group on Tuesday that wood bison would not be welcome on refuge lands because they could alter the "natural" ecosystem, Ron Silas of Minto, who was representing the Minto-Nenana Fish and Game Advisory Committee, started Wednesday's meeting by recommending the state switch its focus to the Minto Flats because it has fewer land management issues than both the Yukon Flats and Innoko River country, which is sandwiched by wildlife refuges to the north and south.

"If they don't want them on the refuge, we'll take them," Silas said with a chuckle.

The advisory group as a whole acknowledged that the Minto Flats represented the path of least resistance, but in the end the group agreed to pursue all three reintroduction sites as possibilities.

"My personal view is that's the one I'd go for because it's the one we can accomplish first," Burris said of Minto Flats.

"If we can't overcome the obstacles of animals getting on the refuge or putting them on a refuge, we've got a major problem with the feds."

Though he prefers the Yukon Flats as the first reintroduction site, Ben Stevens acknowledged it may be necessary to switch the focus to the Minto Flats because of opposition from the feds.

"That could be a good idea to keep the ball moving," said Stevens, who represented the Council of Athabascan Tribal Governments, a consortium of 10 villages on the Yukon Flats who view wood bison as a potential source of meat and culture.

"One way or another, we have to move forward, whether it's the Minto Flats or Yukon Flats," Stevens said. "Getting hooves on the ground is the important thing."

Nancy Fresco, who represented the Northern Alaska Environmental Center on the advisory group, said the meeting addressed the list of concerns she had coming in and is confident any future concerns raised will be addressed.

The endorsement to go ahead with the restoration plan was "huge," according to James.

"This is going to provide us a basis where we can point out broad public support to justify spending money on this project," he said, adding the department will continue to work with the feds to restore bison to the Yukon Flats.

As for hunters who are concerned that money and effort will detract from the state's management of species like moose and caribou that are already present in Alaska, Burris brushed it off in the name of wildlife conservation.

"That's an aside issue to restoring one of a few natural populations of wood bison on the continent," the retired biologist said.

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

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