Deep snow is forcing bison onto Interior Alaska roads

A bison standing in front of a pickup in a snow-covered driveway, with more bison in the background
A half-dozen bison looking for food wandered into the driveway of Elena Powers’ home on Spruce Road in the agricultural area south of Delta Junction last month. (Elena Powers)

Bison have been spending their winters in the farmlands near Delta Junction in Interior Alaska for decades.

But this year’s deep, icy snowpack has forced the animals to forage on farms and travel on roadways. And that’s put both the bison and drivers at risk.

A YouTube video — uploaded in late January and making its rounds online — shows what can happen when vehicles encounter bison on a roadway. With no other way to get around the vehicle except through deep snow off the sides of the road, the bison charged and trampled over the top of a car in the Delta Junction area.

The car was seriously damaged, but the driver reportedly was OK. Neither he nor the person who recorded the video could be reached for comment.

An Alaska State Trooper spokesperson says the agency hasn’t gotten any reports of bison-related wrecks. But Clint Cooper, with the state Department of Fish and Game, said he’s gotten at least two reports of run-ins between the animals and vehicles, one of which killed a bison.

“They’re having a tough time right now, getting through that ice crust and getting to their normal forage,” he said in an interview last week.

Cooper said the December storms that dumped snow and then rain have made it very hard for bison to move around and forage.

“The bison are sticking to the road more so than normal, that’s for sure,” he said. “They’re doing whatever they can to stay out of that snow with that crust on the top.”

Cooper said it’s tough for bison and other wildlife to slog through three or four feet of snow. And he said the two-inch layer of ice can inflict injury as they break through it and then lift their legs back up and out of it.

“It’s painful,” he said. “It’ll scrape and cut up their legs when get through that ice.”

So the bison are taking to roadways around the agricultural area south of Delta Junction, including the Alaska Highway and side roads like Barley Way, where the car-trampling incident occurred.

“There’s been quite a few folks that’ve expressed some concern about the bison being on the roads,” Cooper said. “And I’ve talked to a few people who’ve had some damage to their vehicle.”

A map showing the locations of bison populations in Alaska
The 300-head Delta Bison Herd is descended from a couple dozen plains bison from Montana introduced into the Interior nearly a century ago. The herd, the biggest of four that’ve become established around the region, overwinters in and around the Delta Bison Range south of Delta Junction. (Alaska Department of Fish and Game)

Farmers around the area are accustomed to groups of the Delta bison herd barging through fences and hanging out in fields and other cleared areas during the winter. But Cooper said this year, with the lack of natural forage, farmers have told him the problem is even worse.

“Anywhere they are able find some hay, they’re trying to get to that,” he said.

In response, Fish and Game and the state Forestry Division are working together on a project to clear some paths and forage areas in the 90,000-acre Delta Bison Range, said Cooper.

“Forestry brought down a D7 bulldozer from Fairbanks, and they were planning to do some habitat work out on the Delta Bison Range,” he said. “And so we were able to take that dozer and have him redirect his efforts and have him plow some snow and break through some of that crust.”

Cooper said Fish and Game thinks that’ll give at least some of the bison another place to forage. Meanwhile, area residents should be on the lookout for bison on the roads, he said. And if they encounter them, drivers should either just be patient and give them time to move away. Or, if they must get by the animals, motorists should proceed slowly and give them a wide berth.

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Tim Ellis is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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