ANCHORAGE - Big plays well in Alaska. We're the biggest state, with the most coastline. We've got the continent's tallest mountain and longest sled-dog race. We catch the world's heftiest salmon and halibut, and shoot the biggest moose and grizzly bears.
Within the next few years, North America's largest land mammal could once again roam the meadows and hills of Interior Alaska, munching on vetch, grasses and willow.
An effort to reintroduce wood bison, the up-to-2,200-pound cousin of the plains bison, to Alaska has been under way here for nearly two decades and may culminate with animals roaming free on the Yukon Flats, Minto Flats or in the remote Innoko River area. Right now, Canada is the only place in North America with wild wood bison.
But they've been in Alaska before.
Shaggy descendants of a larger-horned bison from the Pleistocene epoch, wood bison lived in Southcentral and the Interior for thousands of years. An estimated 168,000 called Alaska and western Canada home two centuries ago before the species began disappearing, perhaps victims of over-hunting or habitat destruction and becoming an endangered species here.
Now a herd of nearly 100 that lives behind fences at Portage's Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center - nearly a dozen newborns are due any day - may be able to trade their penned-in world for the Alaska wilderness if proponents led by Fish and Game biologist Bob Stephenson in Fairbanks can remove the few remaining hurdles. Those include: efforts to classify wood bison as a "nonessential experimental population," which allows a reintroduced species to skirt some of the restrictions of the federal endangered species list.
Worries by Doyon Ltd. that a bison reintroduction could harm the Native corporation's plans to drill for natural gas in the Nenana Basin.
Broader concerns that the presence of nearby wood bison could hamper future resource development in other parts of the state.
"We're firmly opposed to reintroduction where there may be any conflict with resource development," said James Mery, Doyon's senior vice president of lands and natural resources. Consequently, Doyon would "vigorously oppose" any effort to transplant wood bison to Minto Flats or Yukon Flats, Mery said, while it has no opposition to the more remote Innoko area.
Something called the 10(j) federal designation rule, an amendment to the Endangered Species Act, allows a species to be reintroduced to a place it once lived by designating it
The rule has been used for the reintroduction of some 30 species in 15 different states, said Randy Rogers, a state wildlife planner with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
"Eventually," said Fish and Game biologist Cathie Harms, "we're looking at the potential of a population that could withstand some hunting within 10 years" when the population grows to about 400 animals.
"Predation is not a problem here. They're well designed for northern climates with massive coats. And they're large enough they can get through deep snow."
Local fish and game advisory committees and federal regional subsistence advisory councils have supported the reintroduction.
But there is opposition.
"We simply don't have a lot of confidence in the 10(j) rule," Mery said. "The intentions are good, but sometimes good intentions are hijacked by interest groups."
Earlier this year, state veterinarian Robert Gerlach led a team of veterinarians and state wildlife biologists who screened 82 wood bison quarantined at Portage.
Each animal had to be handled twice within three days, Rogers said. Large, sometimes ornery and powerful, the big bulls were cordoned off and examined separately to help reduce the animals' stress.
"The herd itself looked in great shape," Gerlach said. "It was pretty much a clean slate."
Some animals were slightly underweight and their feed was adjusted, he added.
The Portage wood bison come from 13 animals obtained in 2003 and 53 more that arrived five years later from Elk Island National Park in Canada - plus their offspring. While no wood bison roam the Alaska wilds today, there are some 10,000 in Canada, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, including 4,000 in seven free-ranging herds.
Rogers said the "nonessential" designation won't be needed if the federal government down-lists 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 do exactly that because of the successful recovery effort in Canada.