Resource Development Council

RDC Comment Letter:
Proposed Rule to Establish a Population of Wood Bison

March 19, 2013

Ms. Sonja Jahrsdoerfer
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
1011 East Tudor Road
Anchorage, AK 99503

Re: Comments on Proposed Rule to Establish a Nonessential Experimental Population of Wood Bison in Alaska

Dear Ms. Jahrsdoerfer:

The Resource Development Council (RDC) generally supports the goal of recovering wild populations of wood bison, however, we remain concerned that reintroduction may have significant impacts on economic and recreational activities. While RDC is not opposed to reintroduction of wood bison at the proposed lower Innoko/Yukon River site, we strongly object to any reintroduction in the Minto Flats or Yukon Flats locations.

RDC is an Alaskan business association comprised of individuals and companies from Alaska's oil and gas, mining, forest products, tourism, and fisheries industries. Our membership includes all of the Alaska Native Regional Corporations, local communities, organized labor, and industry support firms. RDC's purpose is to expand the state's economic base through the responsible development of our natural resources.

Many questions and uncertainty remain regarding the reintroduction of wood bison into Interior Alaska. Even if the wood bison are classified as a nonessential experimental population (NEP), nearly all actions under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) are federal decisions subject to complex litigation. Neither the federal government nor the State of Alaska can guarantee that resource development will not be impacted in the future. Because of such uncertainty, wood bison should only be reintroduced into areas without significant, developable natural resources. Therefore, the final rule should be limited to the lower Innoko/Yukon River location with specific protections for landowners.

In addition, RDC requests that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) prepare a recovery plan for wood bison to guide the reintroduction effort. As it stands now, the proposed reintroduction plan is vague and contains no established criteria or goals for the recovery of the species. The USFWS should also provide greater transparency and information with regard to various components of reintroduction, including compatibility of wood bison with national wildlife refuges, potential conflicts with landowners, and resource development activities.

Service Needs to Consider the Impacts of Reintroduction on Neighboring Landowners

RDC has expressed long-standing concerns with the locations currently identified as potential reintroduction sites (March 29, 2010 scoping comments on proposed NEP designation). Specifically, we remain concerned that all three locations currently identified as potential reintroduction sites are also being considered for significant natural resource development projects. For example, various entities are currently considering: (1) natural gas exploration in the Nenana Basin/Minto Flats; (2) natural gas and oil exploration in the Yukon Flats; (3) construction of a natural gas “bullet line” from the North Slope to Anchorage which would cross a portion of the Minto Flats; and (4) the construction of the Donlin Gold project near the lower Innoko-Yukon River.

The Minto Flats area is being strongly considered for a key in-state natural gas pipeline and where a group holding a State of Alaska oil and gas exploration license and other leases has gathered over 200 miles of seismic data and drilled a well, and additional exploration for conventional natural gas is expected. During 2013, Doyon Limited will spend over $35 million on exploration in the Minto and Yukon Flats to assess whether there are economic concentrations of oil and gas deposits. In addition, south of the Minto Flats is an area where both agriculture and forestry projects may move forward. These projects could be impacted by a reintroduction of the wood bison into the area. Finally, NovaGold Resources and Barrick Gold Corporation are proposing to develop the Donlin Gold mine on Calista Native Corporation land in the lower Innoko-Yukon River area approximately 30-40 miles east of potential wood bison habitat.

Each of these projects could provide an unprecedented economic boost to the respective regions, an affordable supply of in-state energy, and a steady source of jobs in areas that traditionally have high levels of unemployment. In addition, the projects will provide new business opportunities for companies to provide equipment, supplies, and other expertise in support of the resource exploration and extraction activities. Assuming that the projects proceed, there will be improved community sustainability and new tax and royalty revenue sources for the State of Alaska, the Alaska Mental Health Trust, the University of Alaska, the City of Nenana, Native corporations and others. Specific to Native Corporations, Congress enacted the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) to provide a means by which Alaska Natives could derive economic benefits from the resources around them. Native Corporations are the largest private landowners in Alaska, with title to tens of millions of acres of selected land throughout the state. ANCSA Section 7(i) ensures that 70% of all revenues received by each Regional Corporation from timber and subsurface estate resources must be divided among all 12 Regional Corporations. At least 50% of the revenues so received must be redistributed among the Village Corporations. It is therefore fair to assume that decisions made with respect to reintroduction of wood bison on Native Corporation lands will be felt statewide.

Regardless of the procedures used to reintroduce wood bison, by selecting one of the currently proposed sites, USFWS will create uncertainty and additional liability risks that may impact whether these valuable natural resource projects proceed. There is no guarantee that an interested party would not at some point in the future petition USFWS to list the reintroduced species as threatened or endangered under the ESA, thereby triggering the section 9 take prohibitions, the designation of critical habitat, and section 7 consultation requirements. Even if the reintroduction proceeds pursuant to section 10(j), there are no assurances regarding how incidental take will be authorized and that, if circumstances change in the future, the experimental population or associated regulations will not be revised to provide greater protection to the species. Further, there is no means to provide assurances against third party litigation challenging any of these decisions.

It is well-established that the presence of a threatened or endangered species, even if designated as an experimental population, can have a chilling effect on any pending natural resource development project. This is caused by the additional administrative and regulatory burdens placed on the project proponent, the threat of potential liability for taking a listed species, and the possibility of litigation regarding the validity of the reintroduction or impacts of a proposed project on the species. USFWS should thoroughly consider these impacts on neighboring landowners, and the currently proposed projects, prior to authorizing any reintroduction of wood bison. Despite the protections and assurances provided by the NEP designation, which we do not believe are sufficient to protect landowners, the reintroduction of the wood bison in the Minto and Yukon Flats will still affect development opportunities through administrative costs, increased regulatory burden, and the increased risk of litigation from project opponents. These impacts could potentially derail projects and hinder both Doyon’s and Calista’s ability to deliver much-needed economic benefits to the region and additional revenue to other Native corporations and villages. When considering a location for the reintroduction, USFWS, as noted earlier, should select an area with the least potential for future impacts with natural resource development activities. This will benefit both the economic viability of the proposed projects pointed out above and reduce future anthropogenic impacts to the wood bison.

Proposed Rule is Vague

The proposed rule needs to be more specific regarding the NEP area, the selection of reintroduction sites, and applicable management measures. As it currently stands, the proposed rule lacks or does not provide in sufficient detail the actual proposed location of the reintroduction, actual or anticipated migration, number of specimens to be released, and other criteria relevant to the experimental population. In addition, the Environmental Assessment (EA) provides no information regarding land ownership, potential development activities, and physical and biological factors in the proposed reintroduction areas.

The proposed rule should include specific information about the boundaries of the NEP area. As proposed, the designated NEP area covers an area greater in size than Texas. It is not clear where wood bison would actually be located within this broad area or where they would migrate to in the future.

The proposed rule states that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) proposes to reintroduce wood bison into “one or more of three areas within their historical range in central Alaska.” Given such limited information, it is not known which site has been selected for initial reintroduction, when it will occur, and the benchmarks that must be reached before reintroduction occurs at the other sites. As a result, landowners cannot fully understand or anticipate the potential impacts of reintroduction. The USFWS should select one site to serve as the location for the reintroduction. Moreover, given the USFWS has acknowledged that most or all of the area within the NEP boundary is suitable habitat for wood bison, restricting the NEP area to the reintroduction site, and confining wood bison to that area, would provide a measure of assurance to landowners in Interior Alaska.

With regard to applicable management measures to reintroduced wood bison, the proposed rule fails to identify management restrictions, protective measures or special management concerns. The USFWS has deferred this obligation to ADF&G and is relying on future unwritten management plans to provide specific details. As a result, there is no way a landowner can comment at this time on management measures or restrictions, let alone know of any specific components of a reintroduction plan. The USFWS should not issue any final rule until management plans have been drafted and evaluated by the public and affected landowners.

Greater Assurances to Landowners Should be Provided

Any potential reintroduction of wood bison should only occur under a NEP designation and special regulations under ESA Section 4(d) to ensure landowners, resource development projects, and others are sufficiently protected from unintended impacts. With regard to the proposed assurances, we request several clarifications.

First, the USFWS should clarify its policy regarding a change of status to the experimental population. As noted earlier, any party could petition the USFWS to revise the level of protection afforded the reintroduced wood bison. For example, this could occur should the Canadian population of the wood bison crash and a third party determines that the reintroduced species is now “essential.” However, it is our understanding that any rule establishing an NEP is an “agreement” with the affected landowners, precluding a future change in status. The proposed regulatory text should make clear this understanding, but suggests just the opposite. The USFWS should clarify what conditions, if any, that would need to exist to require a change in NEP status.

RDC agrees with Doyon that one approach to address this concern would be to include specific provisions in the rule dictating how those reintroduced bison would be treated in the event of a change in their classification. In proposed regulation, the USFWS states that the elimination of an Alaska wood bison NEP is warranted if the reintroduction fails, causes appreciable harm to other native wildlife, or is based upon legal or statutory changes. However, if such a circumstance occurs, the USFWS has indicated that “some or all of the wood bison may be removed from the wild in Alaska.” The USFWS should revise the proposed regulations to make this mandatory. Such a measure would provide landowners and others with an additional degree of protection should a change of classification occur in the future. It would also give effect to the requirement that the reintroduction represents an “agreement” between the USFWS and affected landowners.

In closing, RDC would like to note that it fully endorses the March 19, 2013 comments submitted by Doyon Limited on the proposed wood bison reintroduction. There are significant regulatory risks and impacts to landowners associated with the proposed reintroduction of the wood bison in Alaska. This is troubling given the huge geographic areas that may be affected should the reintroduction proceed. The issues and concerns expressed by Doyon, RDC, and others need to be resolved prior to any such reintroduction.

RDC appreciates the opportunity to comment on the proposed rule and we thank you for this opportunity to express our concerns on behalf of our member companies.

Resource Development Council for Alaska, Inc.