Stevens Village IRA Council
Stevens Village farm part of effort to reintroduce buffalo herds to Alaska
By STEFAN MILKOWSKI
Fairbanks Daily News-Miner
Last Wednesday, Stevens Village celebrated its new bison herd at a farm near Delta Junction. The celebration marks the successful first step toward a dream that's been around for at least 15 years.
Here's a look at the effort of some Native Alaskans to bring bison back into the state.
Hunting by standing still
The idea to reintroduce bison to the Yukon Flats first surfaced about 15 years ago. Bison lived in the area until quite recently, but once they'd been gone for a few generations, people stopped talking about them, and there was little written record.
"There were no pencils back then," said Craig Fleener of Fort Yukon, a wildlife biologist pushing for the reintroduction as executive director of the Council of Athabascan Tribal Governments.
According to Bob Stephenson, the Department of Fish and Game's Fort Yukon area biologist, anthropologists and biologists didn't know about the animal's history in the area, and Native residents didn't bring it up. The bison wasn't a living part of the culture any more, so people weren't talking about it.
Stephenson said shortly after he took his job, he tossed out the idea of using bison to supplement the area's low moose population.
"It started as a joking idea," he said.
But once people starting talking about bison, Stephenson learned how important the animal had been. He interviewed about a dozen elders. Their stories, along with fossil remains, are the main reasons scientists know bison, or buffalo, lived there.
Traditional chief David Salmon of Chalkyitsik, one of the elders, remembers his grandfather telling stories about the animal.
"They lived on it for thousands of years," he said.
Salmon was at the celebration, sitting on a folding metal chair beside a wood fire and a bubbling soup made with buffalo bones. Herb George, a member of the Stevens Village tribal council, said he was making the soup just as he would have made a traditional potlatch soup—the way his father taught him—but with bison bones instead of moose.
Salmon said the bison were hunted with bows. Hunters would stand side by side in a long line and approach the herd, then freeze, not even moving their eyes.
The bison would watch the hunters for a long time. When the animals finally turned away, the hunters would shoot them with arrows, he said.
They hunted a lot of them, and the herd starting moving into Canada, then disappeared without a clear reason.
"I think that's the buffalo way," he said.
Salmon is worried that moose will disappear the same way. He said the bison project is needed to give future generations something to eat, because 50 years from now it will be hard to find a moose.
In a sense, the idea of reintroducing bison came up just in time. Since people started talking about it, a number of the elders have died, according to Fleener, the biologist from Fort Yukon. If the discussion had started 10 years later, their stories, which help justify a wild reintroduction, would have been lost.
Fleener considers the Stevens Village farm in Delta a good start but not the prize Yukon Flats Natives have sought for more than a dozen years. The Delta farm has plains bison. Stevens Village, Fort Yukon, and other Yukon Flats villages want wood bison, a larger, rarer animal closer to what was there before. They want either a fenced-in herd or one that roams wild.
Those projects have been stalled by disagreements with state and federal agencies over management of the animals and issues relating to their classification as an endangered species. The inclusion of bison in recent restrictions on importing cattle from Canada poses another problem.
Fleener said he was still hopeful despite the challenges. Eleven years ago, Salmon told him he wanted to see bison back in the Yukon Flats before he died.
"My goal is to honor that," Fleener said.
A fine place for bison
When Stevens Village was getting its farm going, it sought help from the InterTribal Bison Cooperative, an organization representing 57 tribes with 15,000 bison across Montana, South Dakota, and elsewhere.
"It almost seemed like a crazy scheme," said the group's executive director, Mike Fox, who wore jeans and cowboy boots to the celebration. "It was just hard to place."
But Fox learned about the animal's history in the state, and the group was able to provide about $100,000 for the project over two years, mostly from Congressional grants.
Now Fox covets the village's Delta range. In northcentral Montana, where he's from, it takes 96 acres to support one animal because the land is so dry. In Delta, the goal is to have 200 bison on 2,000 acres—10 acres per animal—and Fox thinks that's reasonable. Once the animals' hooves trample the ground, the pastures will become even more productive.
The Stevens Village farm is fairly hands-off. Its herd, which includes 14 calves and 24 adults, eats whatever grows naturally or grew on the farm before it became a range—wheatgrass, brome, and wild grasses. The farm puts out salt blocks, installs fences, and does some weed control and fertilization.
"It's like carving out a chunk of wild lands and putting animals back where they came from," said Dewey Schwalenberg, the village's resource director.
The main enclosure is 600 acres. The bison can run straight for more than a mile without hitting a fence. At the celebration, Schwalenberg gave tours of the range from the back of a pick-up truck. He said when the bison first arrived from Palmer, they were used to a 4-acre pen. If they got spooked, they would run 200 feet and stop.
"Now they know they can run," he said.
The Stevens Village's bison aren't the first or only in Alaska. A herd of plains bison introduced to the Delta area in the 1920s has thrived, as have other enclosed herds. At the celebration, Ruby Hollembaek offered her expertise and presented the village with a bison skull she had decorated with bits of colored glass. She and her husband have about 350 bison.
Schwalenberg said he knew the Delta farm would work because he saw the wild bison using it one winter. So far, it has worked. All 14 of the cows that were pregnant this year gave birth.
"They look really good," said the ITBC's wildlife biologist, Kristine Marrill, of the animals.
The farm is already selling meat to Stevens Village tribal members.
Fox said a main goal of the ITBC is getting Native people back onto a healthy diet. He credited bison as a healthy meat and blamed poor diet for a wide range of Native health issues, including diabetes, blood pressure and heart problems.
A main goal of the Stevens Village project is to make up for waning food supplies. Traditionally, people in the area could rely on both moose and Yukon River salmon, said Fleener. When one harvest was low, the other would fill in.
"When both of these are low, we need to start looking for alternative food supplies," he said.
Stevens Village was the first Alaskan tribe to join the ITBC. Now the group is talking with other tribes about starting their own herds, Fox said.
Working to be whole again
Randy Mayo, the first chief of the Stevens Village tribal council, served as emcee during the celebration. He said when tribal members voted to move forward with the bison project, he knew very little about the animal that provided food, clothing, and shelter to his ancestors.
"I really learned a lot," he told the 50 or so who gathered at the farm. "Every time I come here it really lifts me up."
The project was started largely to supplement subsistence harvests, but Mayo hopes it will do more than provide healthy meat. At the celebration, he described the bison project as something of a panacea for a shrinking village facing modern challenges.
It used to be that people could live by hunting, trapping and fishing, he said. Now just getting by requires having money—for gas, ammunition and food.
The tribe has a few hundred members, but many have moved out of the village for school or work and only about 60 people still live there, he said. The oil flowing through the pipeline just west of the village is worth millions, but the village is not wealthy.
"How do you get money without an economy?" Mayo asked. "And what kind of an economy do you want to come in?"
In the bison project, Mayo sees both training opportunities— running a bison farm takes knowing about welding and pipe-cutting as well as the animals and their habitat—and a link to a cultural identity he said is critical to moving forward as a people.
He describes the effort as working to be whole again.
Over the last two years, a dozen teenagers from the village have worked and learned at the farm with Schwalenberg and Steve Hjelm, the on-site manager, in an informal training program. Mayo said some of the teens were really into it.
In a ceremony at the farm during the celebration, Rocky Afraid of Hawk, the ITBC's spiritual advisor, honored the animals. He said the buffalo was placed on earth to teach people how to live and how to pray.
"The buffalo is a whole living being," he said. "You can learn from it."
Afraid of Hawk presented the village with a bison skull to use for praying and promised a curriculum guide to use for teaching. To bless the project, he burned sagebrush in a tin can with coals from the fire. Mayo carried the can around and let guests wash the smoke over their faces. The village gave Afraid of Hawk tobacco and salmon strips.
Mayo believes just being around the animals could help people get past substance abuse and other problems.
"Just observing them," he said, "you never get tired of it."
The Delta farm's biggest hurdle could be economics.
Tribal members have to pay for the meat, but sales don't cover the costs of raising the animals, and the farm relies on a federal loan, government grants and support from the village. While the village's Native corporation is not involved, it has rented land at the farm for a spin-off seeding business, according to Schwalenberg.
Mayo said the project will have to become economic to continue.
Last Wednesday, he was confident. People said a bald eagle flew over the celebration, and Mayo took that as a good sign.
"I know that this is gonna go," he said.
And no one's given up on the bigger, rarer wood bison, either. At the tribe's last annual meeting, members voted to keep working to bring them back.
Staff writer Stefan Milkowski can be reached at email@example.com or 459-7577.