Reintroduction of wood bison hits a snag

Species must become 'nonessential experimental population' under federal designation

Posted: Monday, May 18, 2009

FAIRBANKS - What do California condors in Arizona, whooping cranes in Florida, black-footed ferrets in South Dakota, gray wolves in Montana and wood bison in Alaska have in common?

If wood bison are ever going to roam free in Alaska, the big, shaggy beasts will have to join the above-mentioned species as a "nonessential experimental population" under a federal designation that exempts a reintroduced species from being put on the Endangered Species list.

The state Department of Fish and Game has been working on reintroducing wood bison in Alaska for the last 20 years and has a herd of 79 wood bison held at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center south of Anchorage.

The state was planning to release the animals in the Minto Flats east of Fairbanks next summer.

But the reintroduction plan hit a snag in March when questions were raised about whether the release of wood bison could stymie a Fairbanks Native corporation's plans to drill for natural gas in the Nenana Basin. Doyon Ltd. is planning to sink a $15 million well this summer and is proposing to build a natural gas pipeline from Nenana to North Pole, possibly by 2012.

Gov. Sarah Palin, at the urging of lawmakers, called a halt to the reintroduction effort until the federal government could guarantee the presence of wood bison would not block current or future resource development.

Enter the federal designation rule.

The rule, part of the Endangered Species Act, permits reintroduction of an endangered species to a location it used to live but has since been exterminated or expatriated by designating it an "experimental population." If the species is designated as "nonessential" to the continued existence of that species, the federal government does not have to abide by stringent ESA standards.

"It gives the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service a great deal of flexibility in managing those animals," said Doug Vincent-Lang, Endangered Species Act coordinator for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

The rule has been used in the reintroduction of fish or wildlife in more than 30 cases in 15 different states in the Lower 48 but has never been used in Alaska, said Randy Rogers, a state wildlife planner with the Department of Fish and Game.

"It's worked in over 25 areas of other parts of country; there's no reason why it can't work in Alaska," Rogers said.

That' not how Doyon officials see it.

No special federal rule regarding the release of wood bison in the Minto Flats will satisfy Doyon, Jim Mery, vice president of lands and natural resources at Doyon, said. If approved, the rule will be administered and interpreted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, he said.

"They're the ones that will enforce the rules, not the state," he said. "You basically federalize a half-million acres of state land."

In addition, the rule can be changed by the federal government after it is put in place, and it is subject to legal challenges from the public, he said.

"You're not done once the rules are in place," he said.

At this point, Doyon has no idea what the rule will look like, Mery said. The Department of Fish and Game has not consulted with Doyon about what the rule will cover, he said.

The department is in the process of composing a rule for wood bison in Alaska and hopes to forward a finished draft of the rule to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the next two or three weeks, Vincent-Lang said.

"We're convinced this will provide adequate levels of protection for kinds of activities people have expressed concern about," he said. "We're trying to get a rule written as iron clad as we can get it."

The rule would be submitted to the federal register as a proposed rule to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Department of Natural Resources commissioner Tom Irwin is reviewing the proposed rule and the DNR will forward any suggestions it has to the Department of Fish and Game to be included in the rule, deputy DNR commissioner Dick LeFebvre said.

"What we want to make sure is there's no impeding resource development," LeFebvre said. "That's the primary concern we have."

• Information from the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner,

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