By Yereth Rosen
ANCHORAGE (Reuters) - North America's largest living land mammals could roam the Alaska wilderness again by 2014, a century after they vanished in the state, under an agreement announced on Thursday to reintroduce wood bison to the lower Yukon River area.
State and federal officials said the deal used provisions of the Endangered Species Act to classify the bison as a "nonessential experimental population" in Alaska - meaning that protecting them would not hinder development, including oil drilling or mining. The animal is classified as threatened.
The population will be managed by Alaska state wildlife officials, who ultimately plan to allow limited hunts, officials told a news conference on Thursday.
Wood bison, larger than plains bison, once ranged the boreal regions of northwestern Canada and interior Alaska. In the early 1800s, the population may have been 168,000 in Canada, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.
But habitat loss and other problems took a toll. By the late 1800s, there were only a few hundred left in Canada, according to the service. In Alaska, wild wood bison had vanished by the early 20th century, for reasons still unclear to scientists.
For now, the only wood bison in Alaska are those at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, a refuge in the community of Portage, south of Anchorage. That herd started with a few dozen animals brought from Canada and now numbers about 130.
Under the federal-state agreement, the captive animals will be flown over time to the target region in the lower Yukon River and lower Innoko River areas.
At first, they will be kept in fenced areas, then they will "slowly get the acclimatized to living out in the landscape," said Doug Vincent-Lang, wildlife conversation director for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
"We have no doubt based on the experiences in Canada in the restoration effort that they have, that they will be well-adjusted to the landscape and able to survive," he said.
Canadian officials have rebuilt their wild wood bison population to about 9,000, half of which are free from bovine diseases, the Fish and Wildlife Service said.
But reintroduction in Alaska has stalled over complaints that the animals' Endangered Species Act protections would limit oil and gas drilling, mining and other development, Vincent-Lang said. The new agreement addresses those concerns, he said.
Wood bison are notable for their wooly coats, pronged horns, large heads and large size. The average mature male weighs 2,000 pounds (900 kg), according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.
"What the elephant is to Africa, the wood bison is to North America," Mike Miller, executive director of the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, said at the news conference.
(Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Peter Cooney)