Wood Bison Restoration in Alaska
History of Events of the Alaska Wood Bison Restoration Project
1990-1993 - Historical research initiated; initial consultation and positive feedback with local communities, landowners and other interests in Alaska; local native elder interviews began; and preliminary feasibility and habitat assessments completed. ADF&G began working with Canada's Wood Bison Recovery Team, Parks Canada and the Canadian Wildlife Service to evaluate technical aspects and develop a reintroduction proposal in the context of international bison conservation efforts.
1994 - Yukon Flats Feasibility Assessment completed. It concluded that the project had significant public support, was logistically feasible, that suitable habitat appeared to be available, and that the presence of wood bison would not adversely affect other wildlife or the environment.
1995 - A detailed Yukon Flats habitat assessment confirmed that the area could provide about 4,000 square miles of excellent habitat that could easily support at least 2,000 wood bison.
1996 to 1997- Resolutions of support for wood bison restoration were obtained from Yukon Flats communities and various organizations and agencies
1997 - U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) indicated wood bison restoration was not compatible with purposes of the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge because of questions about when wood bison last occurred on the Yukon Flats and the reasons for their disappearance.
1998 - The Wildlife Society-Alaska Chapter, an organization of professional wildlife biologists, completed a technical peer review of the Yukon Flats reintroduction, and concluded that wood bison were an extirpated indigenous species.
2000 - ADF&G staff reevaluated the project and again concluded that wood bison restoration would be an outstanding wildlife conservation opportunity that should be fully examined in an open, public decision-making process. Due to uncertainty about whether FWS would support a restoration effort on the Yukon Flats and to interest in wood bison from the public in other regions of the state, ADF&G undertook a renewed evaluation of potential wood bison habitat in other parts of Interior Alaska.
2001 - Scientific paper titled "Wood Bison in the Late Holocene Alaska and Adjacent Canada: Paleontological, Archeological and Historical Records" was published, documenting the former presence of wood bison in Alaska. The authors included ADF&G biologist Bob Stephenson, UAF anthropologist Craig Gerlach, UAF paleontologist and Professor Dale Guthrie, Canadian Museum of Nature paleontologist Richard Harington, BLM anthropologist Robin Mills and Yukon archaeologist Greg Hare. The article underwent extensive peer review and was published in a British archaeological journal.
2002 - ADF&G staff conducted an evaluation of additional potential wood bison habitat in Interior Alaska. In addition to Yukon Flats, the Assessment identified Minto Flats and the lower Innoko/Yukon River areas as having wood bison habitat suitable for sustaining large herds.
2003 - USFWS and ADF&G completed a joint review of the historical and environmental issues related to wood bison reintroduction. The joint report resolved virtually all of the issues that had been raised by the FWS in 1997.
2004 - ADF&G and the Alaska Department of Law (ADOL) contracted Mr. Paul Lenzini, an attorney who had worked for the International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, to prepare an analysis and report about alternative possibilities for resolving issues involving the status of wood bison under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
2005 - ADF&G released a wood bison planning proposal that involved a two-phase planning approach. Initially there would be a statewide public planning effort to evaluate public support for wood bison restoration in Alaska. The second phase would involve site-specific cooperative planning (citizen groups and agencies working together) to determine if wood bison restoration should occur in specific areas and, if so, to prepare a cooperative management plan for each site.
ADF&G established the Wood Bison Restoration Advisory Group (WBRAG) to involve diverse wildlife users in decisions about restoring wood bison to Alaska. The group unanimously recommended that ADF&G pursue wood bison restoration and continue to consider the Yukon Flats, Minto Flats and lower Innoko/Yukon River areas.
In May, ADF&G distributed a newsletter that summarized the results of the first WBRAG meeting and provided an opportunity for written public comment on the proposal to restore wood bison. Although the newsletter had limited distribution, the comments received strongly supported wood bison restoration.
2006 - ADF&G organized a meeting with the FWS, Doyon Ltd., the Council of Athabascan Tribal Governments, Alaska Department of Natural Resources (ADNR), and staff from Senator Ted Stevens' office to discuss issues involving wood bison and the ESA and actions that could be taken to resolve concerns about possible impacts to oil and gas or other economic developments.
2007 - In April, ADF&G completed the report "Wood Bison Restoration in Alaska: A Review of Environmental and Regulatory Issues and Proposed Decisions for Project Implementation" (ER). The report proposed moving forward with wood bison restoration on Yukon Flats and Minto Flats simultaneously and following up on the lower Innoko/Yukon River site as quickly as possible. The report was available for public review and comment for five months.
The spring 2007 issue of the Wood Bison News provided a summary of the ER and request for public comment and was mailed to over 2,000 persons and organizations. Numerous public meetings were held at Fish and Game Advisory Committees and other locations.
Numerous comments from residents of local communities and state and national organizations expressed support for wood bison restoration. Doyon, Ltd. submitted comments expressing concerns primarily about the status of wood bison under the ESA and the potential for a legal challenge over the FWS interpretation that wood bison in Alaska would not be considered to be listed under the ESA. In September, ADF&G staff compiled all available information on wood bison and the ESA and submitted it to the Director of the Division of Wildlife Conservation and the Alaska Department of Law (ADOL) for further review and analysis. ADOL concluded that the legal basis for the FWS interpretation on the status of wood bison under the ESA was unclear.
ADF&G completed a Memorandum of Agreement with the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center (AWCC) to maintain wood bison in captivity, pending eventual release to the wild. The agreement also clarified that a small herd of wood bison that was transferred to AWCC by the FWS in 2003, and their progeny, are the property of the State of Alaska. ADF&G agreed to provide AWCC with five to10 wood bison for public display and education purposes.
ADF&G completed a Memorandum of Understanding with the U.S. Forest Service, Chugach National Forest, the Natural Resource Conservation Service, and the AWCC to provide for the use and management of Forest Service lands adjacent to AWCC for additional wood bison pasture.
In November, the ADF&G Wildlife Transplant Policy Review Committee unanimously recommended that the Director of the Division of Wildlife Conservation (DWC) approve the proposed transplant of wood bison to one or more of the three sites in interior Alaska that were evaluated in the ER.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) finalized regulations to allow the import of bovines (cattle and bison) from Canada into the United States. ADF&G submitted an application for a USDA permit to import wood bison from Canada to Alaska.
Canada's Wood Bison Recovery Team filed a petition with the FWS to downlist wood bison from "endangered" to "threatened" under the ESA because of substantial progress in bison conservation in Canada. Canada downlisted wood bison to threatened status in 1988.
In December, the DWC Director signed the Review of Public Comment and Notice of Decision on the Environmental Review. Over 90% of the comments supported the wood bison restoration project. Based on public comment and other considerations, the DWC changed the action proposed in the ER and identified Minto Flats as the initial site where wood bison restoration would be pursued. Restoration to the Yukon Flats and the lower Innoko/Yukon River areas would follow as soon as possible.
In late December, in the process of reviewing an ADF&G ESA import permit application, the FWS indicated they had changed their view on the status of reintroduced wood bison in Alaska under the ESA: wood bison would be considered an endangered species wherever they occurred. At this point, the ESA listing of wood bison became the biggest impediment to reintroducing wood bison because of the perceived risks that the listing generated for oil and gas recourse development.
2008 - In January, ADF&G and AWCC staff and the Alaska State Veterinarian traveled to Elk Island National Park (EINP) in Alberta, Canada to assist with the wood bison handling operation and to select wood bison stock for potential import to Alaska. ADF&G signed a cooperative agreement with EINP to provide for temporary care and feeding of 63 wood bison selected for import to Alaska, and for the transfer of ownership of the wood bison to ADF&G.
In March, the USDA determined that it would be necessary to complete an assessment of the risk of brucellosis and bovine tuberculosis in the wood bison and elk in EINP before the ADF&G import permit could be issued. The risk assessment was completed in May and concluded there was less than .01% chance that wood bison from EINP carried brucellosis or tuberculosis.
ADF&G signed a cooperative agreement with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, Office of the State Veterinarian, to define the animal health requirements and testing procedures needed to import wood bison into Alaska, along with additional testing that would be completed before the animals are released to the wild.
Acquisition of Canadian Wood Bison / Restoration Partner AWCC
All the necessary import permits were obtained by early June and 53 wood bison were transported by truck from EINP to AWCC on June 18 and 19, 2008.
On July 8, a ceremony was held at AWCC to celebrate the importation and its significance to the progress of the Alaska wood bison restoration program. Speakers included the Commissioner of the ADF&G, Director of the DWC, an Assistant Secretary of the US Department of Interior, the Superintendent of EINP and Safari Club International. The event was sponsored by Teck-Cominco.
In November, the first wood bison handling operation took place at AWCC. The operation involved a crew of over 25 persons from AWCC, ADF&G, ADEC, and the University of Alaska.
ADF&G received a letter from the Director of the FWS indicating support for the state's efforts to establish free-ranging wood bison in Alaska. The FWS recommended designating wood bison in Alaska as a "nonessential experimental population," or NEP, to provide maximum flexibility in managing wood bison in Alaska and to reduce the normal regulatory requirements of the ESA.
On December 23, ADF&G and ADOL staff agreed that the best course of action to address wood bison ESA listing issues was to develop special rules under ESA sections 10(j) and 4(d), designating Alaska wood bison as a NEP; detailing the conditions under which they would be managed; and providing protections for resource development such as oil and gas.
2009 - The Winter 2008-09 issue of the Wood Bison News provided an update on the wood bison project; identification of Minto Flats as the first site where site-specific planning would begin; and the change in status of wood bison under the ESA. The newsletter recognized the contributions of many private organizations and public agencies.
On January 16, ADF&G met with the FWS Regional Director and other staff and agreed on a cooperative course of action to complete requirements under the National Environmental Policy Act, and to designate Alaska wood bison as a NEP under section 10(j) of the ESA. Additionally, a special rule under ESA 4(d) for wood bison in Alaska would allow the wood bison reintroduction project to proceed by protecting oil and gas resource development in areas where wood bison would exist.
Challenges and Legal Hurdles
On January 19, Doyon Ltd. submitted a report to the Governor and members of the legislature that expressed concern over the ESA listing of wood bison, particularly how the listing might affect future development of oil and gas resources. The report was entitled "A Major and Unnecessary Risk: Wood Bison on Lands Planned for Development". A second report followed in response to information from ADF&G regarding the special rule that was being prepared. Doyon urged that the project should be halted.
Final Approval and Planning
On February 4, ADF&G and ADOL completed a paper that reviewed the concerns identified by Doyon and ADF&G's efforts to address the status of wood bison under the ESA.
2012 - On May 3, Wood bison were downlisted from endangered to threatened five years after the petition was filed.
2014 - On May 7, the Final 10(j) (Nonessential Experimental Population) rule was published, after more than five years of effort by ADF&G, USFWS, and others. This precedent-setting rule includes the following major provisions:
- ADF&G is identified as the primary agency to manage the bison;
- Hunting will be allowed under sustained yield principles;
- The special rule provides assurances to landowners and development interests that the reintroduction of wood bison will not interfere with natural resource developments or with human activities. Without such assurances, the reintroduction of wood bison to Alaska would not be acceptable to the public, development interests, or the State; and
- If legal or statutory changes reduce or eliminate the State's ability to complete the restoration effort as designed in its management plans, including management flexibility and protection of other land uses and development, some or all wood bison may be removed from the wild in Alaska by any method deemed practicable by the State, including lethal removal.
By August 5, Alaska's governor had reviewed the 10(j) rule and determined that it provided adequate protections for resource development, and gave instructions to ADF&G to proceed with the reintroduction to the lower Innoko/Yukon River area. This release area was selected because of strong support from local people and lack of opposition by Doyon Ltd., and the good quality habitat has great room for growth and expansion of a wood bison population.
2015 - In the seven months between August and April, the project went from glacier speed to light speed as preparations and logistics were lined out to move America's largest land mammal by land, water, and air to the lower Innoko/Yukon River area-300 miles from the nearest road. During the last 10 days of March, bison and their feed were trucked and flown from AWCC to the Shageluk runway, then skidded to temporary holding pens four miles north of the village of Shageluk. On April 3, 100 wood bison were released from temporary holding pens to sedge and grassland meadows across the Innoko River.
May 28 - 12 adult bulls were released near the cows after being loaded into containers at the AWCC and trucked, then barged, to the release site. They traveled 300 miles by road and 700 miles by river, nonstop for four and a half days.
June 25 - The final 18 bulls were released near the cows after traveling the same route as the previous load of bulls.
Over the summer, biologists tracked and monitored the bison from the air. Sixteen wild born calves were recruited into the population in the summer of 2015. As of October 2015, the core range of these wood bison, known as the Lower Yukon/Innoko Rivers Herd, was within 30 miles of Shageluk, except for two lone bison that have explored habitats along the Yukon River from Bethel to Galena.
Also as of October 2015, there were 16 wood bison in captivity at the AWCC. These animals are expected to remain at the Center for educational purposes.
2016 - On April 18th, two wild bred, wild born wood bison calves were spotted in the Lower Yukon/Innoko Rivers Herd, which marked a major milestone for the reintroduction of the wood bison herd through successful reproduction and survival of their first year in the wild.