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Draft Rule to Reintroduce Wood Bison in Alaska

Fish and Wildlife Service Proposes Reclassification of Wood Bison
from “Endangered” to “Threatened”



January 19, 2013
Saturday AM

(SitNews) - The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced Thursday that it will propose to release wood bison (Bison bison athabascae) in Alaska, in support of an Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) plan, in an effort to establish a wild population of this native wildlife species to Alaska. Potential introduction sites include Minto Flats, the lower Innoko, Yukon River area, and Yukon Flats.

The draft rule by USFWS would allow the wood bison to be reintroduced as a “nonessential experimental population,” protecting the state from potential litigation under the ESA, and permitting the eventual hunting of the animals.

jpg Draft Rule to Reintroduce Wood Bison in Alaska

Wood Bison
Photo Credit: Laura Whitehouse/USFWS

The wood bison is the largest native extant terrestrial mammal in North America. Average weight of mature bulls is about one ton (2,000 pounds). They have a large triangular head, a thin beard and rudimentary throat mane, their horns usually extend above the hair on their head, and the highest point of their hump is forward of their front legs. These physical characteristics distinguish them from the plains bison which is the subspecies that roamed the vast prairies of the continental United States.

Historically, the wood bison was found throughout Alaska and Canada. Today, seven free-ranging herds with approximately 4,000 animals are now only found in Alberta, British Columbia, the Northwest Territories, and the Yukon Territory, Canada.

There currently is a herd of wood bison at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center near Girdwood, Alaska, south of Anchorage. The Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center has been an important partner in the wood bison restoration effort. This non-profit organization has been caring for wood bison since 2003, when 13 animals were first transferred to the facility. In 2008, an additional 53 disease-free wood bison were imported from Canada. The AWCC has the expertise and facilities to maintain and expand the captive herd, which now numbers over 130 animals, as they await release to the wild.

In May 2012, wood bison were reclassified from endangered to threatened, to reflect successful efforts in Canada to reestablish free-ranging wood bison herds. The proposed reclassification represents the significant progress that has been made towards recovery and is part of an overall recovery strategy that should eventually lead to delisting the species altogether. Introduction of wood bison in Alaska would support one of the goals of the Canadian recovery plan to foster the restoration of the species in other areas to help ensure its long-term survival.

Regarding the draft proposal by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that would allow the state of Alaska to reintroduce wood bison after years of delay, U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said, “Today’s decision moves us significantly closer to allowing the state to reintroduce a game population that has long been extinct in Alaska,” Murkowski said. “The rule still must be finalized, but I am optimistic that this will finally bring to a positive close Alaska’s 20-year-long effort to bring back the wood bison.”

The state has been working on a program to reintroduce wood bison since the 1990s, and has been seeking an agreement with USFWS that would resolve potential conflicts under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) since 2010. Alaska has not had a wild population of wood bison since the 1800s.

Murkowski said, “I believe this can turn into a healthy and abundant population that can live in Alaska for years to come and can be harvested by Alaska residents along with moose and caribou."

Murkowski, the ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, wrote to USFWS Director Dan Ashe in November calling on the agency to resolve the ESA issue as soon as possible.  

In support of the Alaska Department of Fish & Game's release effort, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to designate a nonessential experimental population of wood bison in Alaska under section 10(j) of the Endangered Species Act of 1973 (ESA) and an associated proposed special rule that would provide a wide range of management options, including assurances that the establishment of the wild herd(s) won’t have any unintended consequences for the State, private landowners, industry, or Alaska Natives. If the proposed rule is adopted, the ADF&G would have primary management responsibility for leading and implementing the wood bison restoration effort.

Geoffrey Haskett, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Alaska Regional Director, said, “We support the ADF&G’s efforts to release wood bison in Alaska. Establishing wild populations of this magnificent animal in Alaska would be a significant step toward its eventual recovery and delisting. We will assist the ADF&G as they work with landowners, industry and the Alaska Native community to address their concerns.”

Doug Vincent Lang, Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Acting Director of the Division of Wildlife Conservation, said, “The Department looks forward to the establishment of a final rule incorporating the 10(j) nonessential experimental population provision and the special rule delegating primary management of this nonessential population to the State. I believe the proposed rule represents a necessary step towards the potential reintroduction of wood bison to the Alaskan landscape.”

The ESA prohibits “take” of listed animal species – which includes killing, harming, or harassing the species or destroying its habitat – without authorization from the Service. However, the special rule we are proposing here, issued under Section 4(d) of the ESA, would define conditions under which “take” of this species may occur without violating the law. The Service generally issues such rules to facilitate the overall conservation of the species or to preserve traditional land use activities, where such activities will not significantly affect ongoing and future conservation and recovery efforts.

Management plans for the introduced populations would be developed by ADF&G with involvement of landowners and other stakeholders. The rule also would allow for regulated hunting based on sustained yield principles. Hunting of wood bison has been used successfully as a conservation tool in Canada, and the ADF&G and the Service support its use in Alaska.

In association with these proposed rules, the Service has published a notice of availability of a draft Environmental Assessment (EA), as required by the National Environmental Policy Act. The draft EA analyzes the potential environmental impacts associated with the proposed introduction of wood bison in Alaska.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is opening a 60-day comment period on the proposed rule and draft EA. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is especially interested in comments that are supported by data or peer-reviewed studies and those that include citations to, and analyses of, applicable laws and regulations. You are asked to include sufficient information with your comments to allow the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to authenticate any scientific or commercial data referenced or provided. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is particularly seeking comments concerning: (1) Any information on the biological or ecological requirements of wood bison; (2) Current or planned activities in the proposed introduction area; and (3) Any information concerning the boundaries of the proposed introduction area. Submit comments and information on either the proposed rules or the draft EA as follows:

After the 60-day comment period, all comments and additional information received will be analyzed to determine whether to issue a final rule to implement this proposed action and to prepare a finding of no significant impact or an environmental impact statement. Comments we receive may lead to a final rule that differs from this proposal.

The Endangered Species Act provides a critical safety net for America’s native fish, wildlife and plants. This landmark conservation law has prevented the extinction of hundreds of imperiled species across the nation and promoted the recovery of many others.

To Comment:

Federal eRulemaking Portal:
Search for docket FWS-R7-ES-22012-0033 and then follow the instructions for submitting comments. Comments submitted to must be received before midnight (Eastern Time) on the date specified in the DATES section.

U.S. mail or hand-delivery:

Public Comments Processing,
Attn: FWS-R7-ES-2012-0033;
Division of Policy and Directives Management
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
4401 N. Fairfax Drive, Suite 222;
Arlington, VA 22203.

All comments will be posted online at


Edited by Mary Kauffman, SitNews


Sources of News: 

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service



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Stories In The News
Ketchikan, Alaska

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