FAIRBANKS - State game officials say they're ready to release at least 40 wood bison in western interior Alaska.
The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reports they're waiting for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to make an exemption for the animals from the Endangered Species Act as a "nonessential experimental population" that would not stand in the way of development projects.
The state has been holding wood bison it imported from Canada for more than two years in anticipation of restoring the animals to Alaska. The herd at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center in Girdwood numbers 89 animals.
The department announced a target release date of spring 2012 but that depends on the federal decision.
"I'm optimistic," said Doug Vincent-Lang, the state's endangered species coordinator. "That's not to say there won't be surprise here and there but I'm confident once we get the nonessential population rule put in place and get the allowed take we would like to have associated with that rule put in place that we will be able to go ahead with the release."
It's costing the state about $100,000 per year to house, feed and care for the bison, according to the department.
The animals have been tested for diseases such as tuberculosis and brucellosis three times and have been given a clean bill of health.
Officials with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service say they are reviewing the special rule that would designate wood bison as a nonessential population and pave the way for their release in Alaska. The Fish and Wildlife Service has told the state it hopes to have the final rule in place by the end of July.
The state wants to release animals in the lower Innoko River area about 400 miles southwest of Fairbanks. Federal officials resisted releasing bison in the Yukon Flats and Doyon Ltd., the Fairbanks regional Native corporation, objected to a release in Minto Flats.
The corporation is drilling for natural gas in the region. It owns several hundred thousand acres in the lower Innoko River area, but Jim Mery, Doyon vice president for lands, said Doyon does not have any pending oil, gas or mineral exploration projects in the area and releasing animals there "is something we can live with."
The department's plan calls for releasing a minimum of 40 bison.