Reintroduction of wood bison in Alaska put on hold again

FAIRBANKS — The re-introduction of wood bison in Alaska has been delayed for at least another year, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is paying for it.

The federal agency recently forked over $200,000 to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to maintain a captive herd of more than 100 wood bison for another year at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center in Girdwood south of Anchorage.

The hope is it will give federal and state agencies enough time to negotiate a special rule that will make the animals exempt from the Endangered Species Act when they are finally set loose in Alaska. The state has been holding the bison at the AWCC for more than three years as part of a plan to restore the shaggy beasts to the Alaska landscape. The Department of Fish and Game imported 53 bison from Elk Island National Park in Alberta, Canada, in June 2007 to complement a herd of 33 wood bison that were already being held at the AWCC.

The herd size has since grown to 103 with the addition of calves the past four years.

The Fish and Wildlife Service gave the state $200,000 to maintain the herd for another year “because we support the reintroduction and believe that it is clearly in line with our missions and mandates,” agency spokesman Bruce Woods wrote in an email. The money will cover food and veterinary costs for the herd for the next year.

The department’s original plan was to release at least 40 of the animals in one of three locations — the Yukon Flats, Minto Flats or the Innoko River Flats — in spring 2010. The most recent plan, after concerns were raised about releasing the animals in the Yukon Flats (national wildlife refuge) and Minto Flats (oil and gas development), was to release a small herd into the Innoko River Flats in western Alaska in spring 2011.

But that release has been stalled while the state waits for the Fish and Wildlife Service to approve a special rule, called a 10j rule, that would not prohibit resource development, i.e. oil and gas drilling, in areas where the bison may be released. The snag at this point is over a provision in the 10j rule that will allow future hunting of wood bison after they are released, assuming the population increases to allow for that.

“The main obstacle we are dealing with is a lack of inclusion of general hunting in the special rule,” Doug Vincent-Lang, a special assistant to ADF&G commissioner Cora Campbell and the state’s endangered species coordinator, wrote in an email.

Wood bison existed in Alaska in the 1800s before becoming extinct because of a combination of hunting and changing habitat.

There are no wood bison in the United States but they are still listed as endangered because they are listed as threatened under Canada’s Species at Risk Act, that country’s equivalent of the Endangered Species Act in the U.S. Wood bison were downlisted from endangered to threatened in Canada in 1988 but they were not downlisted in the U.S.

The fact there are no wood bison in the U.S. and they are still listed as endangered is “simply amazing,” Vincent-Lang said.

The Fish and Wildlife Service gave the state the option in March of publishing a proposed rule in the federal register by the end of April without a provision allowing future hunting or waiting for several months until the issue could be discussed further and, hopefully, resolved.

Releasing the animals without a clause that would allow hunting down the road was not an option, Vincent-Lang said.

Hunting is a “critical element for the long-term conservation of wood bison when we put them on the landscape,” he said.

The Fish and Wildlife Service recognizes that, Woods said, but the agency has yet to figure out a way to incorporate such language into the 10j rule without compromising legal requirements. The provisions of the ESA that allow designation of nonessential experimental populations are legally complex, he said.

“The service has always known that hunting would be among the ultimate goals of this re-introduction, but 10j rules are designed to aid the recovery of species listed under the Endangered Species Act and the agency is focusing on this goal,” Woods wrote in an email. “While the Fish and Wildlife Service remains committed to and supportive of the reintroduction and ultimately the hunting of wood bison in Alaska, the agency wants to provide assurances to the state that the rule establishing the population of wood bison is within the legal framework.”

Hunting is an integral part of wood bison restoration and management in Canada, where the population of wood bison has increased to approximately 4,400 animals in seven disease-free, free-ranging herds.

“Even though they’re listed in Canada as a threatened species, Canada recognizes the need for hunting,” Vincent-Lang said. “We are working closely with the USFWS to resolve this issue and remain confident that we can reach a solution.”


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