The lower Tanana River appears to have the habitat and forage where wood bison can flourish. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game hosted an information meeting at the Manley Hot Springs Community Hall on Monday night to discuss what it will take to reintroduce the species to the area.

“You can be part of giving a significant food resource to future generations,” said Darren Bruning, Fish and Game coordinator in Fairbanks. “It is well within our grasp.”

The Wood Bison Restoration team told meeting attendees about the characteristics of the species, what they prefer in food and habitat, and how they interact with people.

Wildlife biologist Tom Seaton has been on the project for 10 years and said they wanted to open the conversation with area residents.

“We have no plan to release any now, but there is good potential between Tanana and Fairbanks. There’s a state refuge available near Minto that could be a good spot to start with. Yukon Flats is another good area,” he said “We want the support of the tribal council, the villages’ councils, and other large land owners to weigh in. We are not going to turn them loose without local support. It just doesn’t work.”

About 20 residents attended the meeting and asked questions about the effect on moose and caribou populations. Seaton cited a Canadian study that detailed the difference in diets between the large game animals, noting they mostly eat different things. They have a different niche without much overlap. For example, moose eat vegetation from 2 to 12 feet high in trees and shrubbery while bison tend to eat at ground level and in open meadows.

Wood bison, rather than the slightly smaller plains bison, have been selected because late Fish and Game biologist Bob Stephenson discovered a rich oral history of wood bison among the people of Chalkyitsik, Fort Yukon and Beaver. Fish and Game has a policy to release what was there in the past.

“A robust option is to release several populations around the region that can mix as the herds get bigger, with the hope that as the herds grow they will also close the land gap between them,” Seaton said. Right now we are just trying to figure out how much interest there is in this. Never have we said we are going to do this, but here are some options.”

It will take about two years from the time a plan is accepted to reintroduction of the animals. They will come mostly from Elk Island National Park, east of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Seaton said they could get about 40 yearlings on even numbered years. Also there is a small population in captivity at the Alaska Wildlife Conversation Center in Anchorage.

“I think this is a tremendous idea, and I’d like to see them all around here,” Manley resident Tanis Joiner said. ”What’s the next step?”

No one spoke in opposition to the idea.

The team plans more informational meetings in other villages and community-wide formal surveys seeking public comments.

“The public involvement is essential in the decision of if we should put bison in the lower Tanana and where to do it. We are looking for input on these questions. Fish and Game wants people to be a part of the process and driving it.”

If you have input about introducing bison in the lower Tanana, email Tom Seaton at tom.seaton@alaska.gov.

Freelance writer Gary Tomlin can be reached at gtomlin50@yahoo.com.

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