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Plodding Along: Wood Bison

Opinion / Fairbanks Daily News-Miner / September 16, 2006

From a distance, herds of bison appear nearly motionless as they graze, but anyone who has tried a walking approach from behind a wild herd knows they sometimes graze at a deceivingly fast rate.

Just plodding along, they can cover a lot of ground.

The same could be said of efforts to return wood bison herds to Alaska.

Plodding along since the early 1990s, planners in the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, joined by members of the Wood Bison Restoration Advisory Group, have made remarkable progress on the project, though after more than a dozen years in the works it may appear as though it's hardly moving at all.

The ongoing project comes to mind again as the resourceful people of Stevens Village celebrated the bison farm they've built in Delta Junction this month. The village, seeking not only economic opportunity but a source of good lean meat, is raising bison within fences because wild bison have not be allowed to return to their home range. The Delta project is a commendable one and its organizers are to be congratulated. However, the irony of an Athabascan village needing to turn to an agricultural setting to provide what the wilderness outside its back door is not being allowed to provide should be lost on no one.

There is no question wood bison once roamed the Yukon Flats area, and there should be only questions of logistics regarding their return to the Yukon Flats and to Minto Flats.

Shipment of bison from their home range in Canada has been stalled because of the bovine import ban arising after mad cow disease surfaced, but when Alaska is ready for those animals, an exception should be found. These are not domestic cattle.

The situation seems as though it should be simple, but there are complications involving public and private land managers and financial realities faced by the agencies involved. In the end, however, those concerns should boil down to a matter of logistics we can trust public land stewards to overcome. Where there is a will, the dollars can be found. Where there is a need, difficult logistics are simply part of a planning process.

Fish and Game is preparing a broad environmental review that is due out for comment later this fall.
With continued work by Fish and Game and the advisory committee, support from the public, from state and federal legislators and from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this project is at a point where it should stop plodding along and wood bison should be allowed to hit the ground running in Alaska.

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