[Federal Register: February 25, 2010 (Volume 75, Number 37)]
[Page 8736-8738]
From the Federal Register Online via GPO Access [wais.access.gpo.gov]



Fish and Wildlife Service

[FWS-R7-ES-2009-N244; 70120-1113-0000-C3]

Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants; Request for 
Scoping Comments and Intent To Prepare an Environmental Assessment for 
the Proposed Designation of a Non-Essential Experimental Population of 
Wood Bison in Alaska

AGENCY: Fish and Wildlife Service, Interior.

ACTION: Notice of intent.


SUMMARY: We, the Fish and Wildlife Service (Service), plan to prepare a 
draft environmental assessment, under the National Environmental Policy 
Act of 1969, as amended (NEPA), in conjunction with a potential 
proposed rule to establish an experimental population of wood bison 
(Bison bison athabascae) in Alaska, pursuant to the Endangered Species 
Act of 1973, as amended. We are seeking comments or suggestions 
concerning the scope of our environmental analysis for this action.

DATES: To ensure consideration, please send your written comments by 
March 29, 2010.

ADDRESSES: Send information, comments, or questions by any one of the 
following methods.
    U.S. Mail or hand delivery: Fisheries and Ecological Services 
Office, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 1011 East Tudor Road, 
Anchorage, AK 99503.
    Fax: 907-786-3575.
    E-mail: woodbison-ak@fws.gov.

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: Judy Jacobs, (907) 786-3472.

[[Page 8737]]



    A subspecies of North American bison, wood bison (Bison bison 
athabascae) are larger than plains bison (Bison bison bison) and well 
adapted to northern meadow and forest habitats. Skeletal remains and 
historical accounts show that wood bison persisted in a large part of 
their original range in Alaska and Canada during the last 10,000 years 
(Stephenson et al. 2001; Gardner and DeGange 2003). Soper (1941) 
estimated that 168,000 wood bison existed in North America (Alaska and 
western Canada) in 1800. By the end of the 19th century, however, wood 
bison had declined to an estimated low of 250 animals (Soper 1941). The 
specific causes of this precipitous decline are not known with 
certainty, but unregulated hunting following the fur trade, westward 
expansion of European settlement, and severe winters likely played a 
role (Fuller 1962; Gates et al. 1992). The extirpation of wood bison in 
Alaska was likely due to the combined effects of hunting by humans and 
changes in habitat distribution during the Holocene (Stephenson et al. 
2001; Gardner and DeGange 2003).
    Conservation efforts in Canada have substantially improved the 
status of wood bison. Today, there are over 10,000 free-ranging wood 
bison in Canada, including over 4,000 bison in 7 free-ranging, disease-
free herds; over 6,000 in 4 free-ranging herds that are not disease-
free but are increasing; and over 1,000 wood bison in captive 
conservation and research herds. (Canadian Wildlife Service, 
unpublished data 2009).
    We have been coordinating with the State of Alaska (State) to 
pursue the goal of reintroducing wood bison to Alaska. The State and 
other conservation interests believe that wood bison reintroduction to 
Alaska can play an important role in ecosystem restoration and is a 
significant opportunity for international cooperation in improving the 
status of a historically important native species. The recovery of wood 
bison overall, however, is not dependent on restoration in Alaska.
    The Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) has worked for over 
15 years to evaluate reintroducing wood bison into portions of the 
species' historic range in interior Alaska. Three prospective release 
sites with the best potential habitat include: Yukon Flats, Minto 
Flats, and the lower Innoko/Yukon River area (Berger et al. 1995; 
Gardner 2007). Numerous public meetings have been held over the years 
in communities located in these areas. All of the involved local State 
fish and game advisory committees and Federal regional subsistence 
advisory councils have discussed and supported wood bison 
reintroduction. In 2005, the State established a citizen's advisory 
group, the Wood Bison Restoration Advisory Group (WBRAG), to review 
information on the proposal to restore wood bison, discuss the relevant 
issues, and provide recommendations to ADF&G. Following 4 days of 
public meetings, the WBRAG recommended moving forward with wood bison 
restoration in Alaska. ADF&G produces a project newsletter, Wood Bison 
News, to inform the public of current developments with this project, 
and also maintains a web page on wood bison restoration in Alaska: 
http://www.wc.adfg.state.ak.us/index.cfm?adfg=game.restoration. In 2005 
and 2007, ADF&G invited written public comment on wood bison 
restoration in Alaska. In both review periods, public comment strongly 
favored proceeding with this action.
    The proposed reintroduction program would use wood bison stock 
imported from Canada, primarily from Elk Island National Park (EINP), 
Alberta, where a disease-free herd of 300-400 wood bison is maintained 
for the primary purpose of reestablishing additional healthy, free-
ranging wood bison herds in additional parts of the species' original 
range. In June 2008, ADF&G imported wood bison from EINP, and is 
presently maintaining a captive herd at the Alaska Wildlife 
Conservation Center (AWCC) in Portage, Alaska. These animals and their 
progeny are intended to be used as founding stock for reintroductions 
to interior Alaska. Wood bison will be held for a minimum of 2 years at 
the AWCC for additional disease testing while plans for their release 
are finalized.
    The goal of the Alaska wood bison restoration project is to 
reestablish 1-3 free-ranging populations, each including at least 400 
adults within 12-15 years of release, at one or more of the three sites 
with the best potential habitat, Yukon Flats, Minto Flats, and/or the 
lower Innoko/Yukon River area. ADF&G will work with the Service, other 
agencies, landowners and other stakeholders to develop management plans 
for each area where they plan to reestablish the species (ADF&G 2007). 
Some of the key management objectives include restoring an indigenous 
grazing animal and habitat diversity to northern ecosystems, providing 
benefits to Alaska's people and economy, and reestablishing wood bison 
populations that can be harvested on a sustained yield basis.

Regulatory Considerations

Endangered Species Act Protections

    Under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (Act; 16 U.S.C. 1531 et 
seq.), wood bison are listed as endangered, although they presently 
occur in the wild only in Canada. If wood bison were to be introduced 
to Alaska with the endangered designation, they would be subject to the 
protections and prohibitions of sections 7 and 9 of the Act. Section 7 
requires Federal agencies to ensure that any action they authorize, 
fund, or carry out is not likely to jeopardize the continued existence 
of a listed species or result in the destruction or adverse 
modification of designated critical habitat. Section 9 prohibits the 
take of endangered and threatened wildlife. ``Take'' is defined as: to 
harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, trap, capture, or collect, or 
to attempt to engage in any such conduct.

Experimental Populations

    In 1982, Congress amended the Act by adding section 10(j), to 
provide for designation of ``experimental populations.'' Prior to 1982, 
local citizens often opposed reintroductions of listed species into 
unoccupied portions of their historical range because they were 
concerned about potential restrictions to Federal, State, and private 
activities. Under section 10(j), and our regulations at 50 CFR 17.81, 
the Service can designate reintroduced populations established outside 
the species' current range, but within its historical range, as 
``experimental.'' Our regulations at 50 CFR 17.80(b) state that a 
reintroduced population can be considered a ``nonessential experimental 
population'' (NEP) if the loss of that population would not appreciably 
reduce the likelihood of survival of the species in the wild. 
Regulatory requirements of sections 7 and 9 of the Act are considerably 
reduced under a NEP designation. The Act further prohibits designating 
critical habitat for any NEP, and through section 4(d) of the Act, the 
Service may develop regulations and management options specific to the 
species' needs that are necessary to promote the species' conservation. 
In order to establish a NEP, we must first issue a proposed regulation 
pursuant to section 10(j) of the Act and consider public comments prior 
to publishing a final regulation. Our regulations at 50 CFR 17.81 (d) 
require that, to the extent practicable, a regulation issued under 
section 10(j) of the Act represents an agreement between the Service, 
the affected State and Federal agencies, and persons holding any 
interest in land that

[[Page 8738]]

may be affected by the establishment of the NEP.

Wood Bison Status in Canada and ESA Petition

    In 1988, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in 
Canada reclassified the wood bison from ``endangered'' to 
``threatened'' status under Canada's Species at Risk Act because 
Canadian populations of wood bison were recovering. In 2007, Canada's 
Wood Bison Recovery Team petitioned the Service to reclassify wood 
bison from endangered to threatened status under the Act. On February 
3, 2009, we published a finding that the petition presented substantial 
information indicating that this action may be warranted and initiated 
a status review for wood bison (74 FR 5908). Following our review of 
the wood bison's status, we will issue a finding on the petition, in 
which we will determine whether it is appropriate to retain the 
species' endangered status, reclassify it as threatened, or even to 
remove the wood bison from listed status under the Act.

Regulatory Status of Wood Bison in Alaska

    The State will not consider reintroducing wood bison to Alaska in 
the absence of Federal regulatory assurance to landowners and land 
managers that such action would not adversely affect resource 
development activities important to Alaska's economy. Such assurance 
could be accomplished through a change in the species' listing status 
throughout its range or through the establishment of a NEP pursuant to 
section 10(j) of the Act. A reclassification of the wood bison to 
``threatened'' status, without the establishment of a NEP pursuant to 
ESA section 10(j), would not provide sufficient regulatory assurance.

Scoping Process

    To ensure compliance with NEPA and the Act, the Service and ADF&G 
are cooperating to prepare a draft environmental assessment (EA) and 
proposed rule to establish, under section 10(j) of the Act, a non-
essential experimental population of wood bison in Alaska. The purpose 
of this scoping process is to aid the development of the EA by 
collecting comments on this action as a way to support wood bison 
conservation. We also seek comments on the environmental effects of 
reintroducing wood bison to Alaska.
    In addition to the ``no action'' alternative, our draft EA will 
    (1) The environmental effects of issuing 10(j) and 4(d) rules for 
wood bison in Alaska;
    (2) the environmental effects of reintroducing wood bison to one or 
more of the potential release sites Minto Flats, Yukon Flats, and the 
lower Innoko/Yukon River area;
    (3) the environmental effects of reintroducing wood bison to Alaska 
in the absence of 10(j) and 4(d) rules.
    We will incorporate the relevant public comments we receive in 
response to this scoping notice into our analysis of impacts of the 
proposed action and project alternatives in the draft EA. This document 
will include maps of the proposed reintroduction area or areas, based 
on public input and current knowledge of wood bison habitat in Alaska. 
We will make the draft EA available for a minimum 30-day public review 
period. The final environmental document, which will address the 
comments we receive during the draft EA public comment period, will be 
available on the internet.

Request for Public Comments

    We wish to ensure that any 10(j) rule and associated environmental 
documents we issue relating to the wood bison in Alaska effectively 
evaluate all potential issues associated with wood bison reintroduction 
to Alaska. Therefore, we request comments or recommendations concerning 
any of the considerations we have listed above; and also concerning: 
The biological and habitat requirements of the species; information on 
the distribution and quality of habitat for the wood bison in Alaska; 
the overall approach to the conservation of wood bison in Canada and 
Alaska; reasons why any specific areas might require special management 
or should be excluded from, or added to, the proposed reintroduction 
site or sites; and any other pertinent issues of concern. We seek 
comments from the public; Tribal, local, State, and Federal government 
agencies; the scientific community; industry; or any other affected or 
interested party. To determine whether to prepare a Finding of No 
Significant Impact or an Environmental Impact Statement, we will take 
into consideration all comments and any additional information we 


    A complete list of all references in this notice is available upon 
request from the Fish and Wildlife Service (see ADDRESSES).


    The primary author of this package is the Fisheries and Ecological 
Services Office, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Anchorage, AK.

    Dated: February 12, 2010.
Gary Edwards,
Deputy Regional Director, Region 7, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
[FR Doc. 2010-3889 Filed 2-24-10; 8:45 am]