State downsizes bison hunt after a third of Delta herd starves to death

A motorist on the Alaska Highway photographed a group of bison that had taken to traveling on the road last winter, because deep snow with a couple of layers of ice made it hard for wildlife to use their usual trails. The hard snow and ice cap also made it almost impossible for bison to forage, causing about 180 bison in the Delta herd to starve to death. (KUAC file photo)

Alaska’s longest and most popular hunting season ended early this year. The Delta Junction bison hunt usually extends from October to March, but the state limited this year’s season to just two weeks, and only 50 animals were taken, because last winter’s heavy snow and ice buildup wiped out nearly a third of the Delta bison herd.

The Delta bison hunt is by far the most popular for any game species in the state. Hunters submitted more than 44,000 applications last year in hope of drawing a permit to harvest one of 120 animals the state had planned to make available this year.

Even after last winter’s die-off, the Delta bison herd is still the state’s largest and most prolific. The 28 plains bison imported from Montana in 1928 had grown to more than 600 by fall 2021. (Courtesy Dwight Phillips)

“That’s definitely the highest ever,” says Bob Schmidt, the state Department of Fish and Game Delta-area wildlife biologist.

Schmidt says state managers had to rethink their plan for this year’s hunt after finding out that about 180 bison, or nearly a third of the 600-animal herd, died of starvation last winter. That’s three times the number they estimated last spring. He says they weren’t able to eat because storms dumped an almost impenetrable layer snow and ice atop the grass and sedges that bison feed on with.

“Last winter was a winter like we’ve never seen,” he said. “And it was really the rainstorm right after Christmas that was really hard on wildlife across much of Interior Alaska, and particularly bison.”

Schmidt said in an interview Thursday that the magnitude of the die-off became evident last spring.

“They looked really bad well into the summer,” he said. “Even the survivors were really skinny and in poor shape.”

A half-dozen bison looking for food wandered several times into the driveway of a home in the agricultural area south of Delta Junction in February. Area farmers have long complained about bison raiding their farms’ stores of livestock feed and causing other damage, so the state Fish and Game Department set a game-management goal of keeping the Delta herd down to about 360 animals. (Courtesy Elena Powers)

Game managers responded by reducing the number of bison that could be harvested this year from 120 to 50. And they cut the length of the hunt from six months to two weeks. But Schmidt says the hunters reached that quota in half that time during the abbreviated hunt held last month.

“Normally, they’d be hunting all the way ’til March. But this time it was, y’know, ‘Get up here, wham, bam, get it done.’ Y’know, no messing around kind of deal.”

Schmidt says he sees signs that the Delta herd is rebounding. And if that proves true, Fish and Game likely will extend the season in the next year or two, and increase the harvest quota. He says the objective is to maintain a sustainable herd of about 360 bison — not too large, so as to limit the damage they cause by trampling on area farmer’s fields and raiding their stores of hay and feed.

“We probably don’t want to let it get all the way back to 600,” he said. “There are some agreements we’ve got in place with the (agriculture) community to try and stay closer to that 360.”

The Delta bison hunt attracts more applications every year than any other game species. It’s an iconic species prized by hunters, not the least because they provide hundreds of pounds of meat per animal. The six-month-long season also gave hunters time to return to regroup and return to the area as often as needed in that timeframe to find the ideal specimen.

“This bison hunt is pretty much a once-in-a-lifetime hunt,” Schmidt said.

Schmidt says he feels bad for hunters who drew permits and weren’t able to get in on this year’s hunt. He said his personal opinion is that they should consider appealing to the state Board of Game before the April deadline for another opportunity to re-apply for permits for the 2024 hunt, and to ask the board to waive the required waiting period.

Tim Ellis is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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