Alaska’s Wood Bison Restoration Project Expands to Second Region

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is set to begin a new phase of Alaska’s Wood Bison Restoration Project by expanding into a second region. Approximately 65 wood bison will be transported to Minto Flats State Game Refuge, located about 35 miles west of Fairbanks, next month for release into the wild in the following year. Wood bison, once widespread across the state, saw their population decline to just a few hundred animals in North America by the early 1900s. Alaska’s program is the only one of its kind for wood bison in the United States.

The decision to introduce wood bison into the Minto Flats area comes nine years after the state first released them in Western Alaska’s Lower Innoko and Yukon rivers region in 2015. While the population in Western Alaska has not yet grown as expected, Fish and Game biologist Tom Seaton remains confident in the future of the restoration project. Seaton acknowledges that extreme winter conditions have contributed to the decline in the Western Alaska population, but he believes wood bison can still thrive in Interior Alaska in the long term.

However, two Interior tribal organizations, Doyon Limited and Tanana Chiefs Conference, have expressed opposition to the wood bison release in the Lower Tanana River area. They argue that managing existing species and addressing the decline of Yukon River salmon should be a higher priority for Fish and Game. Chief Brian Ridley, chairman of Tanana Chiefs Conference, questions the state’s decision to introduce wood bison into an area where they are not wanted.

Despite the opposition, Seaton remains optimistic about the project’s long-term outcome. He sees the restoration of wood bison as an opportunity to restore a subspecies once thought to be extinct and to diversify Alaska’s ecosystems. Seaton believes that wood bison can contribute to sustainable hunting resources for Alaska’s people.

The Wood Bison Restoration Project in Alaska began about 30 years ago, with the help of Canada’s successful efforts to rebuild the wood bison population. Wood bison were reintroduced to Alaska in 2015 after being transported from Canada in 2008. The project faced various challenges, including the animals’ endangered status, logistical issues, and border closures due to mad cow disease.

While the wood bison population in Western Alaska has experienced fluctuations due to harsh winter conditions, Seaton remains committed to the project’s goals. He emphasizes that even in extreme conditions, wood bison have shown resilience and the ability to survive. The wood bison program is funded primarily through federal money and has no direct connection to Alaska’s ongoing salmon decline.

The upcoming release of wood bison in the Minto Flats State Game Refuge has faced opposition from tribal organizations, but Seaton believes that the project’s benefits extend to all people who use public lands and have access to public resources. The state law will ultimately guide the allocation of resources.

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