Proposed rule may return wild Alaska wood bison
(AP) — A proposed rule allowed under federal law governing endangered species could open the door for the return to Alaska of wood bison, North America's largest land mammal and a species now found only in Canada.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Thursday confirmed that wood bison reintroduced in Alaska would be considered an experimental population not essential to the continued existence of the species under the proposed rule.
The rule would allow wood bison to be managed by state wildlife officials and be exempt from certain restrictions in the Endangered Species Act., allaying state fears that development projects could be stymied if wood bison are released into the wild.
"We believe this approach is the best thing for conservation, it's the best support we can give in order to re-establish this population," said Larry Bell, director of external affairs for USFWS in Alaska, at a press conference.
Under the proposed rule, Alaska could use hunting as a tool to manage the population.
The rule would also limit endangered species requirements that could impede development: a requirement for the Fish and Wildlife Service to designate critical habitat for wood bison, and the requirement for companies to consult with federal agencies if their proposed developments affected a threatened species.
Doug Vincent-Lang, director of the state Division of Wildlife Conservation, said provisions of the ESA had raised concerns within state government and within industry, including petroleum companies considering exploration.
The proposed rule will be published Friday in the Federal Register and the public will have 60 days to comment. Depending on what comes in, Bell said, the rule could be adopted in six months to a year.
If it's adopted without controversy, Vincent-Lang said, wood bison could be transported to the Innoko Flats about 350 miles southwest of Fairbanks by spring 2014.
Wood bison are the larger of two subspecies of American bison. Smaller plains bison were not native to Alaska but were introduced to the state in 1928 and have thrived.
Bull wood bison weigh 2,000 pound and stand 6-feet-tall at the shoulder. Wood bison feed primarily on grasses, sedges and forbs but can live off a wider variety of plants, including Alaska's abundant willow.
The reason for their disappearance from Alaska a century ago is not known, Vincent-Lang said, but the state has a strong interest in reintroduction as both an alternative source of food for subsistence hunters and as a game animal for sport hunting.
Anticipating reintroduction, the state in 2008 imported 53 wood bison from a national park in Canada, adding to a smaller herd that was held at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center in Portage. The animals have thrived in captivity and now number about 130. That's enough for the reintroduction, Vincent-Lang said.