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Errant North Pole bison found; owner trying to round them up

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Posted: Thursday, June 7, 2012 5:32 pm

FAIRBANKS - Three of the four domesticated bison that escaped a farm in North Pole two weeks ago are no longer on the lam.

The three bison were rounded up Thursday at the Chena Flood Control Project and herded into a fenced compound by workers from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on four-wheelers. The bison showed up at the flood control project late Wednesday afternoon, the first time anyone had seen them since they escaped from a farm on nearby Plack Road on May 24.

Owner Deb Cotton had pretty much given up hope of finding the bison when they hadn’t been seen for two weeks. She was pleasantly surprised to hear they showed up on the flood plain and even happier when they were corralled on Thursday.

“It went really well,” Cotton said of Thursday’s roundup.

There has still been no sign of the fourth bison, a large, 22-year-old bull named Tatonka. Cotton hopes the old bull will show up looking for his herdmates.

The bison are being kept in a fenced area in the Corps of Engineers compound until Cotton can figure out a way to move them to her 20-acre farm a few miles away on Plack Road.

“They’ve never been in a trailer, and they’ve never been halter broke,” she said. “I have no idea what I’m going to do.”

One of the two cows, Ayla, is “very pregnant” and is expected to calve any day now, Cotton said.

The other two bison are a 2-year-old bull named Leonidis and an 18-year-old cow named Liberty.

The bison escaped the 20-acre fenced enclosure that Cotton keeps them in at her farm on Plack Road. Cotton said a rope holding a gate shut was somehow untied, though she wasn’t sure how.

“I went out at 11 o’clock at night to check on them, and they were there, and when I went out at 5:30 in the morning to give them some more hay, they weren’t there,” she said.

Cotton, who raises the animals for meat, didn’t go public when the bison initially escaped because she was worried people would hunt them down when word got out they were loose.

Livestock that get loose are designated as feral after 48 hours and become fair game for hunters under state hunting regulations, Fairbanks area biologist Don Young with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game said.

“I was trying to keep it quiet hoping they were going to come home because I didn’t want them shot,” Cotton said.

Jake Kesler, a Corps of Engineers ranger, spotted the bison near the woods at the edge of the Chena River floodway at the flood control project on Wednesday afternoon.

Chena Flood Control Project Manager John Schaake wasn’t surprised when the bison showed up. Cotton had called him when the bison got loose because her farm is next to the project.

“I told her that the floodway was perfect buffalo habitat, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them end up here,” Schaake said.

On Thursday, Schaake jokingly called the flood control project “the Yellowstone of the North.”

But the situation got more serious Thursday morning when the bison climbed over the dike and crossed Laurance Road. They were walking along the bike path and the road near the Chena Lake Recreation Area fee station.

“Obviously, there could have been a public safety problem with the animals on the road side of the dam,” Schaake said. “We didn’t want them running around on the bike path with baby strollers.”

Schaake hatched a plan Thursday to herd the bison into the Corps of Engineers compound, which is fenced, using four-wheelers. Kesler and volunteer host Hutch Hutchinson ramrodded the roundup.

“We just ran them a couple miles down the bike path to the compound,” Schaake said. “They came right through the fence. Some of our guys showed some good herding skills.”

The bison were herded into a separate fenced area that serves as the corps’ materials yard. They will stay there until Cotton comes up with a plan to get them home.

“We’re going to put them in the construction materials storage pasture behind the bunkers where they can be safely confined and help us with willow eradication,” Schaake said.

Schaake said it was “pretty neat” seeing the bison roaming the grass-covered floodway on Wednesday.

“They looked like they should be out there,” he said.

Contact staff writer Tim Mowry at 459-7587.

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