FAIRBANKS - The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is moving ahead with plans to reintroduce wood bison - the largest mammal native to North America - into the Interior within the next few years.
Wildlife officials told the Alaska Board of Game Friday that when and where the bison will be released are the next decisions to be made.
The board began deliberating and voting on proposals Sunday.
The state has been working to reintroduce wood bison in Alaska for the past 20 years. The Department of Fish and Game imported 53 bison from Canada a year and a half ago and is holding 82 bison at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center in Girdwood.
The goal is to release the animals in one of three spots in the Interior - the Minto Flats, Yukon Flats or Innoko Flats - in the next year or two.
But first the federal government has to approve the state's plan to list the bison as a "nonessential experimental population," a designation that would circumvent the Endangered Species Act and potential ramifications.
"We don't see any problem in getting that status approved," state wildlife planner Randy Rogers told the board.
The state's original plan was to release the first group of bison on state land in the Minto Flats east of Fairbanks but the prospect of oil and gas development in the region has raised some concerns, said wildlife biologist Bob Stephenson said.
Stephenson said the Innoko River Flats in western Alaska might be the most realistic release site at this point, because there are few concerns regarding the Endangered Species Act.
Rogers said it may also be possible that the special designation won't be needed if the federal government downlists wood bison to threatened status and removes the animal from the Endangered Species List.
Canadian officials have submitted a petition to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to downlist wood bison from endangered to threatened because of the successful recovery effort in Canada. The agency also could de-list wood bison from the endangered species list altogether, Rogers said.
Game board chairman Cliff Judkins said getting bison removed from the endangered species list would be preferable to special exemption.
"The only real answer is to de-list," he said.
Judkins also asked the Department of Fish and Game to come up with a management plan to address the future harvest of wood bison, both for subsistence and sport hunting.
The number of bison held by the state is likely to increase to almost 100 this spring when cows have their calves, Stephenson said.
"We could have 12 to 15 calves this spring," he said.