The Aishihik wood bison herd seems to be a science project gone awry.
First introduced into the Yukon wilderness in the early 1980s, as part of a national recovery program for the species, the experiment has succeeded beyond its promoters’ wildest dreams.
Depending on how you look at it.
More than 25 years later the herd’s population has more than tripled its original target. Thirteen years of hunting has done nothing to curtail the explosive growth.
The numbers speak volumes.
In the beginning, 142 bison were transplanted from Elk Island National Park, the Toronto Zoo and a Moose Jaw game farm to a five-square-kilometre corral in the Nisling River Valley.
The goal was to end up with a herd of at least 400.
Between 1988 and 1992, 170 bison were released from that enclosure to fend for themselves.
And fend they did.
By the late 1990s, more than 500 bison roamed a huge region, bordered on the south by the Alaska Highway and on the east by the North Klondike Highway.
The herd was deemed healthy and hunters were allowed to start harvesting the shaggy beasts.
In the years since, many Yukoners enjoyed feasting on bison meat, after pursuing the herd through the cold and the snow, but they didn’t so much as put a dint in the population.
On the contrary, it just continued to grow. And the bison got wise to the ways of hunters on snowmobiles.
Even though nearly 700 bison permits were handed out in 2010/11, only 119 bison were harvested. It wasn’t much better the season before that – only 152 bison were killed but 800 permits were given out.
Today the herd is estimated at 1,230 – far and above what wildlife managers first envisioned. Now they’re scratching their heads wondering what to do.
There’s some concern about the herd’s toll on the area. Big animals leave a big footprint: not only on the land but also on the other wildlife that were there first, such as moose, caribou and sheep.
Managers question whether the transplanted bison are upsetting the delicate balance and damaging fragile ecosystems. They’re even working their way up into the alpine.
Others worry about the hazard they pose to highway travellers, and then there’s the threat of disease.
Studying and managing the herd and the hunt consumes precious resources at Environment Yukon, a department that already suffers from neglect and underfunding.
That’s time and money that could be used to look after other wildlife populations in the Yukon.
This month is the public’s last chance to weigh in as the government prepares a new management plan.
The draft has put forward four simple choices:
1) a herd less than 500
2) a herd of about 500
3) a herd between 1,000 to 1,230
4) a herd greater than 1,000
The right answer seems like it’s a no-brainer – either #1 or #2.
And that’s likely what the Yukoners who take the time to play manage-the-bison-herd will pick.
The bigger question will be whether the government will have the nerve to make the tough call when all the dust has settled.