FAIRBANKS - Hunters and farmers in Delta Junction are at odds over Alaska's largest bison herd.
Farmers contend the animals are damaging agricultural crops and need to be stopped, whether it's by building fences or drastically reducing the size of the herd. Hunters oppose both options. If anything, they want to increase the herd to create more opportunity for what is Alaska's most popular drawing permit hunt.
The result is a "confirmed stalemate" that will likely require action from the state Department of Fish and Game or the Legislature, said Randy Rogers, wildlife planner with Fish and Game.
"The Delta Bison Working Group made recommendations on a number of things but didn't come to agreement on herd size or concepts of fencing," Rogers said of an advisory committee created to help the department. "They agreed that fencing is a long-term solution but there's a big split in what kind of fencing option to use."
At an estimated 435 animals this fall, the Delta Bison Herd is the biggest of three free-ranging bison herds in Alaska. The other herds are located on the Farewell Burn west of the Alaska Range near McGrath and in the Wrangell Mountains near Chitina, both fairly isolated areas.
The management objective for the Delta herd is 360 bison before the spring calving season, said Steve DuBois, a Department of Fish and Game biologist. The state regulates the herd size through sport hunting. Each year, based on the most recent population estimate, the state issues a select number drawing permits.
The damage caused by bison comes in different forms. Sometimes the bison simply trample and eat barley, oats, grass and hay. In other cases, farmers are forced to harvest grain earlier than wanted to prevent bison from damaging it. Doing so results in expensive drying costs. Bison also run through potato fields, roll around in seeding grass fields and run through fences.
"It's time to either cut the herd way back or solve the problem through fencing," farmer Mike Schultz said.
The Division of Agriculture in Fairbanks conducted its first crop damage assessment this year and estimated that bison caused more than $140,000 worth of damage this fall. But Charlie Knight, northern region manager for the agriculture division, cautioned against relying on the figure.
"It's almost impossible to come up with a number," he said. "On the ground you can't see all the damage and in the air you can't tell how much is bison damage and how much is moose damage."
Reducing the size of the herd might help reduce crop damage but it would also have an economic impact, said Lenny Jewkes, a Fairbanks hunter. He said hunters add about $1 million a year to the Delta Junction economy,
"Fencing the herd in is not an option and a drastic reduction in herd size is not an option as far as hunters are concerned," Jewkes said.
At this point, the Fish and Game will try to implement the recommendations the working group could agree on - establish an ongoing crop damage assessment program, improve bison habitat on the bison range and boost hunter success rates to ensure harvest objectives are met.