AK: Palmer, where the bison roam

Earlier this month, President Obama signed into law the National Bison Legacy Act, making the American bison the nation’s official mammal. The unusual legislation has no other purpose than to make bison, more commonly referred to as buffalo, another national symbol. Surprisingly, Alaska has four small but thriving bison herds of its own, established years ago for now obscure reasons. Although the president’s endorsement does little more than highlight an American icon, it sparks new interest in an animal that has survived for millions of years, despite near-extinction.

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Bison roam free on ranchland near Palmer (Photo by Ellen Lockyer, Alaska Public Media - Anchorage)
Bison roam free on ranchland near Palmer (Photo by Ellen Lockyer, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage)

It’s a national icon like no other, evoking images of times past, when great herds thundered across the midwestern plains. The North American bison has graced the seal of the US Department of the Interior for over one hundred years, while the celebrated story of its rise from the brink of extinction to recovery inspires the spirit.

A small herd of these inspirational creatures briefly crashed a picnic of Alaska legislators and their staffers last summer, on pastureland owned by livestock producer Todd Pettit.

Many of the staffers scrambled to get into their cars, although the big beasts were merely curious, not threatening, or perhaps drawn to the scent of potato salad.

Todd Pettit raises bison at Little Pitchfork Ranch in Palmer (Photo by Ellen Lockyer, KSKA - Anchorage)
Todd Pettit raises bison at Little Pitchfork Ranch in Palmer (Photo by Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage)

Pettit, who’s privately-owned herd supplies his commercial meat business, thinks nothing of walking among the hulking beasts at feeding time. He gives one a slap on its rear end that sends the animal scampering off like a chastened puppy .. all thousand pounds of it.

“No, no… get outta here”  Pettit commanded, and the shaggy bison trotted back to its fellows.

While Pettit’s bison herd has been pretty much bred on his Little Pitchfork ranch near Palmer, four state-owned herds are living in the wild in Alaska. But why?

Perhaps Darren Bruning, a Fish and Game regional supervisor, can answer that question best.

“In 1928, 23 individual bison were translocated to Interior Alaska from the National Bison Range in Alaska, and they were actually brought by an enterprising individual who lived near Delta Junction, Alaska,” Bruning said.

The Delta settlers back then wanted deer or elk for hunting meat, but got Montana bison instead. From that seed herd, the territory, and later,  the state, established three others in the 1950s and 60s. One in Slana, one in Chitna, and another in the Farewell area of Iditarod fame.

Bruning said at first, they were just left on their own, but later, state Fish and Game stepped in.

“Years later, there was official, organized effort to monitor the animals and track their population dynamics and their health and condition,” Bruning said.

Some of Pettit's bison grazing on ranchland near Palmer (Photo by Ellen Lockyer, Alaska Public Media - Anchorage)
Some of Pettit’s bison grazing on ranchland near Palmer (Photo by Ellen Lockyer, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage)

Pre-statehood, the practice of introducing species. Sitka deer for example… to Alaska was not uncommon. But sometimes, there were unintended consequences. Although the Delta herd thrived in its new home, decades later it achieved legendary status in the lexicon of Alaska boondoggles when a state agricultural project was established a little too close to the herd’s range. For a while, it was buffalo versus barley farmers.

Today, the state monitors the four wild bison herds to provide hunting opportunity for Alaskans.  Bruning said it is one of the most sought-after hunting permits in the state.
And there is an added bonus.

“We have conducted genetic testing for numerous years on the Delta and the Farewell herds, and there has been no introgression of cattle genes detected,” Brunig said. “There’s no reason to believe the Chitina or the Copper River herds would be any different, because the source herd is the Delta herd.”

Most lower 48 herds  carry cattle genes,  because it was private conservationists who worked to keep the species alive during early restoration efforts.

Despite its new lofty status as a US symbol, the bison has no special federal protection, unless it lives on federal land, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

And there are no restrictions on privately owning an American bison.

Todd Pettit and friends on Little Pitchfork Ranch (Photo by Ellen Lockyer, Alaska Public Media - Anchorage)
Todd Pettit and friends on Little Pitchfork Ranch (Photo by Ellen Lockyer, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage)

“Oh, it is the best decision I have ever made, I would never turn back from it,” Pettit said.

Back at his ranch, Pettit told visiting legislators how his family went from raising hay to raising milk cows, until the decline in the Valley’s dairy industry forced them to get rid of the cows.

“And I was happy to see em go,” Pettit said. “It was a lot of baby sitting, a lot of pulling calves. But I wasn’t done with raising animals. And so I told em I was going to get some buffalo. My grandpa was happy about it, but my grandma, she was pissed. ‘We finally got rid of them cows, and now your bringing buffalo. What are we going to do with them buffalo?'”

It doesn’t take much urging to get him to sing the buffalo’s praises. Pettit said, unlike diary cows, they are suited to Alaska’s climate

“And the brilliance of a bison is, if there is something underneath the snow, that has food value, they will get it,” Pettit said. “That big old head of theirs is just a bulldozer, and they will dig down through three feet of snow drift to get to it. So if there is a goodie, they’ll find it.”

Bruning agreed.

“They really have proven to be very successful in Alaska,” Bruning said.

Bruning said bison are engineered for the extremes of the North American continent… built to withstand both heat and cold.. and massively robust and immensely strong. Today, most bison in the US are in private herds, while the wild population is less than one percent of what it was in pre-colonial times.

The bison’s honorary designation does nothing to diminish the status of the Bald Eagle, the country’s national bird. Alaska has more Bald Eagles than any other state, some 30,000 of them, and now the two national, and spiritual, symbols share a home.