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ANCHORAGE - State game officials want to reintroduce wood bison to Western or Interior Alaska and hope to import dozens in late winter to prepare them for the wild.
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The state Department of Fish and Game wants to import about 50 young wood bison from Canada's Elk Island National Park as early as February.
The would be mingled with about 30 captive bison at a wildlife refuge near Portage, state wildlife biologists said.
Groups of wood bison from that newly created seed stock could eventually be trucked or flown to grassy areas in the Interior or western Alaska, said Randy Rogers, state wildlife planner.
Wood bison are larger that the plains bison found in the Delta area.
Wood bison were in Alaska and northern Canada for thousands of years but were last spotted in Alaska around 1900. Their numbers in Canada at the time had dwindled to about 300. They have rebounded in Canada to about 4,200, biologists said.
The idea to bring them back took root in 1991, said Bob Stephenson, the state's wood bison project biologist.
Most people then thought the animal had disappeared when the Ice Age ended more than 10,000 years ago, he said. But Alaska Natives told stories of deceased relatives who had hunted them. One elder reported seeing them as a young man shortly after 1900. Radiocarbon dating of wood bison remains helped support the later dates.
Hunters like wood bison for their tasty, plentiful meat. Bulls average between 1,800 and 2,200 pounds.
Wood bison exist peacefully with other big game. Moose prefer browse such as aspen and birch trees. Musk oxen eat mostly sedges and grass, Stephenson said.
The Minto and Yukon flats in the Interior and an area near the confluence of the Yukon and Innoko would provide ideal grazing, according to a state environmental review released in April. The areas could one day support as many as 2,000 or more wood bison, Rogers said.
According to the environmental review, the wood bison would be trucked to Alaska from the national park in Alberta. They would spend at least two years at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center near Portage and released only after the state veterinarian certified them disease free, Rogers said.
Once the animals are in the wild, it could be another 10 years before their numbers are large enough to allow a hunt, Rogers said.
The Council of Athabascan Tribal Governments in Fort Yukon, representing 10 Interior villages, supports the concept, said Ben Stevens, acting executive director.
The state will not go ahead with the plan until it reviews feedback from a public comment period that ends June 30, Rogers said.
The plan could get sidetracked.
U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations ban the import of bovine animals from Canada for fear of introducing mad cow disease. The department may change the regulation in January, biologists said.
Bringing wood bison back is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, said David James, Fish and Game's regional supervisor for the Interior and eastern Arctic.
"This is an opportunity to provide a more secure footing for a pretty spectacular animal," he said.