FAIRBANKS - Stevens Village residents have introduced a small bison herd to tribal land 200 miles southeast of the Yukon River community.
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"This is just a start," Randy Mayo, first chief of the Stevens Village tribal council, said Wednesday during a dedication at the village's farm near Delta Junction.
The village bought the 2,000-acre farm in 2004 with a loan from the federal government after years of trying to win government support for reintroducing the rarer wood bison closer to home. It bought its first 18 plains bison from a herd in Palmer and later bought more, and this year 14 calves were born, bringing the herd to nearly 40.
The goal is to provide healthy, inexpensive meat to villagers, who rely on a small population of moose and shrinking salmon harvests. Villagers hope to increase the herd to 200 animals, harvesting about 25 animals a year.
Twenty village members helped hang fence and do other work around the farm. Many of them are teenagers, who learned to pound posts and market meat.
"We could just sit here and talk about the benefits endlessly," Mayo said.
Steve Hjelm, who oversees the herd, led tours of the farm on Wednesday. Miles of fencing encloses a 600-acre range where the bison are kept. The fencing keeps out another bison herd brought to the area in the 1920s that now roams wild.
Hjelm drove visitors in his truck through knee-high grasses toward the herd. Young calves wandered with full-grown, 2,000-pound bulls.
Hjelm stopped near the herd, then began to back up when the animals walked toward the truck, which at least one likes to use as a scratching post.
Outside the farm's work shed, villagers celebrated the bison project.
Traditional Chief David Salmon of Chalkyitsik said his grandfather told stories about how bison were once hunted and used. The reintroduced animals will play a critical role for future generations, he said.
A week before the open house, a bison cow was hurt, probably in a fight between bulls, said Dewey Schwalenberg, the village's resource director. The cow's shoulder was badly injured and the animal had to be killed.
Schwalenberg cooked meat from the cow into a German stew for a traditional feast served Wednesday. Herb George, with the Stevens Village tribal council, made soup with bison bones. The heart, liver and tongue were cooked separately.
Information from: Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, http://www.newsminer.com