Panel OKs restoration of bison

Posted: Friday, June 10, 2005

FAIRBANKS - A public advisory committee has endorsed a plan to restore wood bison in Alaska, but it hasn't said exactly where it should be done.

Instead, the seven-member group said Wednesday that the state should continue developing a plan to put wood bison back in one of three areas - the Yukon Flats, the Minto Flats or the Innoko River country.

"I feel so confident in the public support we'll get bringing wood bison to Alaska that we should immediately start the process to get the permits to import and hold bison," said Oliver "Bud" Burris, a retired state wildlife biologist speaking on behalf of the Alaska Outdoor Council, as well as the Fairbanks Fish and Game Advisory Committee.

Where the bison will go if they ever do get here remains to be seen.

After two days of digesting a trough-full of information about wood bison and regurgitating it into the beginnings of a restoration plan, advisory group members failed to select a preferred site for a wood bison reintroduction.

The decision was largely influenced by David James, regional director for the Division of Wildlife Conservation. He told the group that unexpected roadblocks could crop up with any of the three proposed sites and selecting just one could slow, rather than speed up, the process.

The meeting, the second in as many months, was another step in what has been a 14-year effort by the state Department of Fish and Game.

Slightly larger than their Plains bison cousins, wood bison roamed Alaska hundreds of years ago, according to radiocarbon dates taken from bones found around the state and oral accounts of Native elders living in villages on the Yukon Flats, the last known range of wood bison in Alaska.

Currently, there are about 3,000 wood bison remaining in a handful of captive and wild herds in Canada, including a free-ranging herd of almost 600 bison in the Yukon near Whitehorse.

In an effort to gain momentum for its restoration project in Alaska, Fish and Game formed an advisory group to recommend whether to pursue the restoration effort and where to do so.

Ted Heuer, manager of the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge, told the group Tuesday that wood bison would not be welcome on refuge lands because they could alter the "natural" ecosystem.

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