Alaska moves ahead with bison reintroduction plans

Fairbanks, Alaska (AP) – The Alaska Fish and Game Department is
moving ahead with plans to reintroduce wood bison – the largest
mammal native to North America – into the Interior within the next
few years.

Wildlife officials told the Alaska Board of Game Friday that
when and where the bison will be released are the next decisions to
be made.

The board will begin deliberating and voting on proposals on
Sunday.

The state has been working to reintroduce wood bison in Alaska
for the past 20 years. The Department of Fish and Game imported 53
bison from Canada a year and a half ago and is holding 82 bison at
the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center in Girdwood.

The goal is to release the animals in one of three spots in the
Interior – the Minto Flats, Yukon Flats or Innoko Flats _ in the
next year or two.

But first the federal government has to approve the state’s plan
to list the bison as a “nonessential experimental population,” a
designation that would circumvent the Endangered Species Act and
potential ramifications.

“We don’t see any problem in getting that status approved,”
state wildlife planner Randy Rogers told the board.

The state’s original plan was to release the first group of
bison on state land in the Minto Flats east of Fairbanks but the
prospect of oil and gas development in the region has raised some
concerns, said wildlife biologist Bob Stephenson said.

Stephenson said the Innoko River Flats in western Alaska might
be the most realistic release site at this point, because there are
few concerns regarding the Endangered Species Act.

Rogers said it may also be possible that the special designation
won’t be needed if the federal government downlists wood bison to
threatened status and removes the animal from the Endangered
Species List.

Canadian officials have submitted a petition to the U.S. Fish
and Wildlife Service to downlist wood bison from endangered to
threatened because of the successful recovery effort in Canada. The
agency also could de-list wood bison from the endangered species
list altogether, Rogers said.

Game board chairman Cliff Judkins said getting bison removed
from the endangered species list would be preferable to special
exemption.

“The only real answer is to de-list,” he said.

Judkins also asked the Department of Fish and Game to come up
with a management plan to address the future harvest of wood bison,
both for subsistence and sport hunting.

The number of bison held by the state is likely to increase to
almost 100 this spring when cows have their calves, Stephenson
said.

“We could have 12 to 15 calves this spring,” he said.

The state recently completed a third round of disease testing on
the bison and found no sign of tuberculosis, brucellosis and other
diseases of concern.

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