As you near the Portage cutoff on the Seward Highway south of Anchorage, take a look at something Alaska hasn't seen for more than 100 years - wood bison, thanks to a rare collaborative effort that brings together many conservation interests including hunters, Native groups, government agencies and the business community. The goal is to restore North America's largest land mammal to the meadows and boreal forests of Interior Alaska where these magnificent animals once roamed. First release into the wild could come as early as 2010 or 2011.
Alaska Fish and Game Commissioner Denby Lloyd called the wood bison restoration project "one of the most significant conservation initiatives in decades." But this project, which enjoys enormous public support, is under assault over unfounded fears that it cannot coexist with resource development. Concerns have been raised about the potential for wood bison restoration in Alaska to impede oil and gas and other natural resource development projects due to provisions of the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Alaska's Fish and Game and Law departments are working in partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to secure a special rule for wood bison in Alaska under Section 10(j) of the ESA. The rule would designate wood bison as a "nonessential experimental population" because the Alaska stock is not essential to the survival of the species in the wild, and because the source of Alaska's wood bison stock is a captive breeding herd. Under this special rule, wood bison would be treated as "proposed for listing under the ESA" on private and state lands and threatened on national parks and refuges. The rule would prohibit designation of "critical habitat," where resource development activities might be restricted and remove several other regulatory requirements that normally apply to endangered species. The Department of Law has conducted research on lawsuits involving 10(j) rules and has not found any instances where these special rules have been overturned by the courts. ADF&G has made a commitment to hold off on releasing any wood bison into the wild until the special rule is completed and determined to provide the necessary protections to other land uses and resource development activities.
The Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center would never support a program that poses a threat to the development of Alaska's natural resources. This is not a case where a choice has to be made between developing the economy and restoring a natural ecosystem. This problem seems all too common, and it is truly unfortunate, as it strengthens the long-standing, erroneous idea that economic progress and environmental protection cannot coexist. We believe there are mutually agreeable solutions if all parties work together, and that it is in Alaska's best interest to return the wood bison to their native home. Wood bison roamed the far north for 10,000 years, but Native elders report they disappeared from Alaska within the last few hundred years. Conservation programs in Canada have increased their numbers to over 4,000 animals, and their status in Canada has been downgraded from endangered to threatened. Today, you can hunt wood bison in Canada, ranch wood bison for commercial purposes and see them along the road when you drive the Alaska Highway.
The USFWS is currently reviewing a proposal to change the status of wood bison under the ESA to threatened. As conservation efforts in the United States and Canada proceed, there is a good possibility that wood bison can be completely removed from the endangered species list in the not-too-distant future.
Thirteen yearlings from the Yukon came to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center in 2003. Elk Island National Park sent another 53 last year and today the growing herd totals about 80, with around 21 babies expected this spring.
The wood bison restoration project is reminiscent of the highly successful reintroduction of the musk ox in Alaska in the 1930s. The musk ox disappeared about the same time as the wood bison and has since been returned to its Alaska heritage.
Just as musk oxen now meander across the North Slope and through the Red Dog Mine, wood bison coexist with resource extraction and development in Canada.
Many public agencies, private organizations and individuals have contributed to the wood bison restoration effort. Alaska's interests are best served by talking with one another instead of hurling missives and rushing legislation and resolutions that are not well though-out and ignore on-going efforts to develop cooperative solutions. By working together we can ensure that wood bison and other resource development can prosper side by side.
Mike Miller is the founder and executive director of the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, located south of Anchorage near the Portage cutoff.