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FAIRBANKS - State and federal officials agree that wood bison once roamed Interior Alaska. Meetings this week may advance the effort to bring them back.
The state Department of Fish and Game is hosting a two-day meeting in Fairbanks in hopes of stirring up support for restoring wood bison, a proposal discussed for 14 years but resisted by federal refuge managers.
"It's time to bring everybody to the same table and see where we sit," said Fish and Game spokeswoman Cathie Harms. "This is a meeting to decide if we're going to go forward and how to do it if we are."
The state has been working since 1991 to restore wood bison to the Yukon Flats north of Fairbanks, where state wildlife biologists say the animals roamed centuries ago in substantial numbers before disappearing in the last 200 to 300 years. The state would acquire wood bison from Canada, which has a wild population of about 3,000 animals.
The project has received the support of Alaska Natives, environmentalists and hunters.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has not embraced the idea of restoring wood bison in an area next to the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge. Federal managers worry about the effects of bison on the refuge.
"The bottom line is we have some pretty specific mandates on preserving fish and game populations and habitats in their natural diversity and protecting the biological integrity of the refuge," said Yukon Flats refuge manager Ted Heuer. "We have some concerns whether or not introducing bison would be consistent with those mandates.
"If we thought we were restoring a missing component of the ecosystem, we'd be all for it," he said. "The problem is nobody knows exactly when or why they disappeared."
Wood bison are taller and bigger than their cousins, plains bison, which number about 900 in Alaska. Wood bison are darker and have a more pronounced hump.
Archaeological evidence and oral accounts from Alaska Native elders indicate wood bison were hunted by humans until the animals disappeared sometime in the mid-1800s. The reason for their disappearance is not known.
The Wood Bison Restoration Advisory Group, which includes representatives from eight interest groups such as environmentalists, Native subsistence hunters and trophy hunters, will help determine whether wood bison should be restored.
The meeting today and Thursday is not a way to force the federal government's hand, said Randy Rogers, a planner for the Department of Fish and Game.
"We're just trying to get all the information on the table," he said. "We see this as an outstanding conservation opportunity for Alaska. We want to see if the public agrees with us."
According to preliminary studies, the Yukon Flats north of Fairbanks offers prime wood bison habitat. Biologists estimate the flats could support at least 2,000 animals.
The state also has conducted habitat surveys in the Minto Flats, west of Fairbanks, where it was determined habitat could support more than 400 wood bison.
Other areas that show promise are the lower Innoko River valley near Shageluk and Holy Cross, the Hogatza River valley near Huslia and Hughes and the North Fork of the Kuskokwim River valley near Lake Minchumina, according to Fish and Game officials.