Agency Plans to Return Wood Bison to Alaska


     WASHINGTON (CN) – After a more than a 100-year absence from the United States, an experimental wild population of the largest North American land mammal may be reintroduced to Alaska in support of Canada’s successful wood bison recovery plan, according to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposal.
     The planned experimental population in Alaska would support the restoration of the species in other areas to ensure its long-term survival, the agency said in a press release. Canada has successfully established seven free-range disease-free herds within its borders, resulting in the reclassification of the wood bison from endangered to threatened status under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the agency noted. “Establishing wild populations of this magnificent animal in Alaska would be a significant step toward its eventual recovery and delisting,” Geoffrey Haskett, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Alaska Regional Director, was quoted as saying in the agency’s press release.
     The experimental population would be drawn from a captive-bred donor population. Because any future loss of the planned Alaska herd would not further threaten the species’ overall survival in its current range, it is considered to be a “nonessential” experimental population (NEP), the proposed rule stated. The NEP would allow “for the reintroduction of a species to its former range with special rules that allow for some of the management requirements of the ESA to be relaxed to facilitate acceptance by local landowners and managers,” the rule noted.
     Wood bison lived in Alaska for most of the past 5,000 to 10,000 years, but had virtually disappeared from Alaska by 1900, according to the action. Historic habitat changes during the Holocene period, and hunting, are thought to be factors in the species’ decline.
     Wood bison are larger than plains bison, with bulls weighing up to one ton. Other differences between the two species include color, hump placement, horns, and the hair of the mane, beard, cape and chaps. The range of the plains bison generally is south of that of the wood bison.
     The USFWS plans to reintroduce the bison in one to three areas in central Alaska, in Yukon Flats, Minto Flats, and/or the lower Innoko/Yukon River area. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game would have primary management responsibility. Once the herd is established, hunting would be an important management tool for controlling the herd size, and is allowed in a non-essential experimental population, the rule said.
     Comments are due March 19.

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