FAIRBANKS — The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is one step closer to releasing wood bison back into Alaska.
After nearly three years of negotiations, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Department of Fish and Game have come up with a draft of a special rule that would designate wood bison as a “non-essential, experimental” population in Alaska and therefore not threaten future resource development. At the same time, the draft rule allows the state to manage any future hunting or harvest of the animals.
The two agencies will hold a news conference Thursday in Anchorage to announce the draft rule for wood bison reintroduction.
The rule, called a 10j rule, is a provision of the Endangered Species Act that allows the reintroduction of a species to where it used to live but has since been driven out or exterminated. The rule allows for greater flexibility managing a reintroduced species than an endangered one.
For example, the rule prevents the designation of critical habitat on land the animals are on.
Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang called the draft rule “a positive step in the right direction” but emphasized the rule is only a draft that will be sent out for public comment. The Fish and Wildlife Service could change the rule based on the comment it receives, he said.
“The state is going to reserve its decision to release wood bison on the landscape pending review of the final rule,” Vincent-Lang said. “Rules can change from draft version to final version.”
The state has been trying to reintroduce wood bison in Alaska for the past 20 years, but that effort has been met with resistance from the Fish and Wildlife Service, which is responsible for enforcing the Endangered Species Act.
The state imported a herd of 53 bison from Canada in 2008 to supplement a smaller herd already being held at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center in Portage, about 20 miles south of Anchorage. The herd has grown to about 125 animals as a result of breeding, and state game managers in October announced they would have to kill 10 bison this winter to keep it from getting any bigger.
The department originally planned to start releasing bison into the wild in spring 2010. However, a plan to release animals in the Yukon Flats, the last place the animals were known to roam in Alaska in the 1800s, was scrapped by the federal agency because that area is now a national wildlife refuge.
The state’s second-preferred release site, the Minto Flats about 20 miles west of Fairbanks, was shelved because of concerns about conflicts about future gas and oil development raised by Doyon, Limited.
The department’s current plan is to release the first animals on the Innoko Flats in Southwest Alaska once an acceptable 10j rule is in place.
The public will have 60 days to comment on the draft rule, at which point the Fish and Wildlife Service could make changes before publishing a final rule in the Federal Register.
Neither Vincent-Lang nor Bruce Woods, a spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife Service, would comment on the specifics of the draft rule. Vincent-Lang said the rule satisfies concerns the state had regarding managing the future harvest of wood bison in Alaska and any legal challenges about resource development such as oil and gas exploration.
“Overall the rule is pretty solid; it’s got the protections we need to move forward,” Vincent-Lang said. “It allows the state of Alaska to manage hunting and other take provisions of wood bison once they are released on the landscape as a non-essential population.”
“Getting the Fish and Wildlife Service to acknowledge that the state is going to be the primary manager if we put wood bison on the landscape, that’s a big step,” he said.
Contact staff writer Tim Mowry at 459-7587. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMoutdoors.