The Sitkalidak Island bison herd in the Kodiak Island Archipelago will welcome three new bulls in September, part of an effort to continue growing the herd to increase food security for the village and the Alutiiq tribe.
The Inter-Tribal Buffalo Council, a national organization that aims to help bring back bison and buffalo to Natives, is transferring 40 Yellowstone National Park buffalo to 16 tribes in nine different states to save the animals from slaughter and preserve their pure genetics and lineage.
“The opportunity we are presented with is truly unique and would ensure the long-term health and sustainability of the Sitkalidak Bison Herd for future generations,” said an Old Harbor Alliance press release.
ITBC policy prohibits the buffalo from being slaughtered or sold. The buffalo are to be used “to bring new genetics to the herd,” said ITBC Wildlife Biologist Megan Davenport.
The OHA is a nonprofit group made up of residents of the community, members of the Alutiiq Tribe of Old Harbor, and shareholders and descendants of the Old Harbor Native Corporation.
Discussions about purchasing the herd began in 2015. The following year, OHA began making contact with ranchers and state officials, and became a member of the ITBC.
Last spring two bison were harvested, providing over 600 pounds of meat throughout Old Harbor.
This year, the three Yellowstone buffalo are slated to arrive on Sept. 3, and will travel from Montana to the Kodiak Archipelago in stainless steel and wooden crates on trucks, a plane and a barge.
The total project cost, which includes veterinarian services and GPS VHF radio collars, will be $90,000.
The costs will be covered by multiple entities, including ITBC, Lynden Transportation – which is covering travel expenses from Anchorage to Homer — and a grant from the village of Old Harbor and the Alutiiq Tribe of Old Harbor.
The Yellowstone buffalo in the transfer program were captured at the boundaries of the national park during the winter months and went through rigorous testing for the disease brucellosis, before moving on through a quarantine process.
Buffalo that test negative may enter the quarantine protocol and are eventually transferred to the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes in Montana to complete post-assurance testing. They are then declared brucellosis-free by the state of Montana and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and are cleared for travel.
Before entering Alaska the bison must undergo additional tests — a process that has delayed the transfer of the bison to Old Harbor. Currently, 34 of the 40 bison in the program have arrived safely in their new homes.
After the bison arrive on Sitkalidak Island in September, the remaining bulls will be harvested to increase genetic diversity among the herd. The harvest will be distributed among OHA members.
According to the OHA press release, testing hair samples of the bison found that 23 out of the 35 samples had low levels of heterozygosity in comparison with the eight federally recognized herds.
Low heterozygosity means the Sitkalidak Island bison herd has low levels of genetic diversity.
Because genetic diversity is desirable for the long-term survival of the herd, it was suggested to integrate new genes “into our herd for long-term health and survival,” said the OHA press release.
The release also said that Yellowstone bison cannot be purchased on the public market.
“The cost of a high-end bull at a public auction can range from $18,000-$30,000,” said the press release.
Yellowstone National Park is home to one of the largest and continuously free-roaming buffalo herds in the United States. Buffalo have lived in the region encompassed by the park for thousands of years, and are known for their pure bloodlines and for not having been interbred with cattle.
Buffalo once numbered in the tens of millions in North America, but have been reduced over the years to the hundreds of thousands because of hunting and disease.
According to the ITBC, 10,000 Yellowstone buffalo have been slaughtered since the 1990s because they are leaving the park to feed at lower elevations.
In the early 1990s, a larger number of bison were slaughtered at once, when “state game officials would shoot animals by the hundreds of thousands depending on the week,” Davenport said.
She said the situation was “a culmination of issues where a couple bad winters in a row and growing population, and conflict between the state of Montana and Yellowstone National Park ... led to killing fields at the boundaries of Yellowstone”.
After the controversial slaughter, the ITBC was formed and soon after presented its quarantine proposal to Yellowstone National Park. The Choctaw Nation and Fort Belknap Tribes offered land and resources to develop quarantine facilities.
ITBS was “turned away a couple times until they had to intervene legally and fight to be allowed to be involved in the decision making on the issue,” Davenport said.
She said the quarantine plans were supported publicly, but those plans were derailed because of regulatory obstacles.
Quarantine facilities were finally approved in 2018 for post-quarantine assurance testing. According to ITBC, the group has saved over 200 buffalo from slaughter.
ITBC Executive Director Arnell said the group hopes to do similar transfers annually or biannually.