Legislature hinders reintroduction plan

Posted: Sunday, April 17, 2011

Mike Miller

Alaska is poised to bring back the largest land mammal in the western hemisphere -- the wood bison. This is truly a win-win situation for everyone -- hunters, watchable wildlife advocates, scientists, conservationists, subsistence users -- and an opportunity to correct a mistake mankind made almost a century ago.

As the date for first release grows nearer, some have raised concerns that a federal government-gone-amok will use the wood bison to lock up more of our state. A freshman representative introduced HB 186 that would require legislative approval to release the animals. This legislation is unnecessary, would delay first release by at least a year and impose a significant financial burden.

Wood bison disappeared from Alaska about 100 years ago, probably as a result of over-hunting. Canada found a small herd of the animals in the 1960s, moved them to a protected area and let them multiply to the point they could be reintroduced. Canada presently has seven large, wild herds of wood bison that coexist with the nation's aboriginal inhabitants, its mining interests, its tourism business and its large oil and gas industry.

The project to reintroduce wood bison in Alaska dates back more than a decade. After extensive consultations and planning, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game decided to adopt the project and asked the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center to support the animals until they could be released. The first bison arrived in 2006 from the Yukon Territory and another 60 arrived in 2008. Today, the herd numbers 86.

It has been our privilege to care for the bison at our nonprofit facility near Portage. The Wildlife Center does not charge the state for the care of the bison, or for the use of the land and our facilities. This has been our contribution to this project. But now it is time to begin returning the bison to their traditional home, and plans are under way for a first release next Spring in the Innoko area in west-central Alaska.

Wood bison are listed as an endangered species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. The state, in cooperation with the Fish and Wildlife Service, has determined that the best way to address ESA concerns is to establish a special federal rule to designate the bison as a "nonessential experimental population." The special rule, called 10(j), removes many of the regulatory requirements that normally apply to endangered species and allows the state to manage the animals.

These 10(j) rules have proven to be highly effective in about two dozen cases and Alaska's wood bison meet the legal requirements for such a designation.

Fish and Game has repeatedly said it will not release wood bison until the final rule is in place and provides sufficient protection for other existing and future land uses. We support this approach.

Alaskans throughout the state want the bison released, and not slaughtered and donated to charity as suggested by our freshman legislator. The people of the lower Yukon and Innoko area support restoration, as do sport hunting groups, Native subsistence groups and watchable wildlife groups. It is unusual for these diverse groups to work so harmoniously on a mutually beneficial project.

Financial support has been as broad-based and has ranged from the Safari Club, to the Ted Turner Foundation. Many Alaska groups and institutions support the project on an ongoing way, including the University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences and Carlile Transportation Systems.

Bison are not just animals. They are a beautiful, iconic species. We feel privileged to work with them every day, to tell their story and help them on their way to again enriching Alaska's landscapes. Restoring wood bison to Alaska would enhance Alaska's wildlife resources, restore a key grazing animal to our northern ecosystem, and increase habitat diversity in those areas.

The Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center strongly opposes HB186 and instead encourages the Legislature to seek ways to help Fish and Game move as expeditiously as possible to restore wood bison in the lower Yukon and Innoko areas.

Mike Miller is the Executive Director & Founder of the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center.

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