New legislation would benefit tribal bison herds

Act sponsored by Rep. Don Young would provide funding to enhance herd development

Bison in the herd owned by Old Harbor Alliance being collared and biological samples collected. Photo courtesy of Old Harbor Alliance

Tourism, industrial services and telecommunications are the investment mainstays of Old Harbor Native Corp. However, it’s the Old Harbor Alliance’s growing herd of bison on Sitkalidak Island that underscores the cultural importance of a sustainable food source.

“This brings highly nutritional meat to our members; it allows people to go out and hunt,” said Melissa Berns, who manages the herd for the Old Harbor Alliance, a nonprofit whose members include OHNC, the Alutiiq Tribe of Old Harbor and the city of Old Harbor. “It is a huge thing for our community that we have,” she said.

The tribal entity has an annual three-tiered system of hunts.

Tier one, the cultural hunt, is held every fall and also often in the spring, depending on the need determined by the Alliance board, which also sets the number of bison to be taken. Meat from the hunt is dispersed to community members and also shared for community potlucks and youth programs. Tier two is a draw hunt for residents of Old Harbor and Aleut tribe members, and tier three is a commercial hunt, with permits sold to people outside of the tribe to generate income for elder and youth programs and herd management.

Old Harbor Alliance bought the herd of 43 bison in 2017 from a family on Kodiak Island and relocated them to uninhabited Sitkalidak Island, which lies in the western Gulf of Alaska, just off the southeast shore of Kodiak Island, across the Sitkalidak Strait from the city of Old Harbor.

Since 2017, the herd has grown to about 77 bison, said Berns. “Every cow will birth every year. They have a high reproduction rate.”

In 2020, the Intertribal Buffalo Council awarded the Alutiiq Tribe of Old Harbor three bison bulls from Yellowstone National Park to improve the genetic diversity of its Sitkalidak bison herd. The bison had to be transported from Montana to Seattle, from Seattle to Anchorage and from Anchorage to the Homer Spit for a boat ride to Sitkalidak Island. To assist with that final transport, Cynthia Berns, Melissa’s sister, and vice president of community affairs for OHNC, asked for help from Lynden Transport. A driver from Lynden met the FedEx plane arriving in Anchorage and loaded the three 1,200-pound bulls into a special 20-foot container and transported it on a landing craft vessel to Sitkalidak Island.

The island, owned by the Old Harbor Settlement Trust, is also home to deer, fox, rabbit, land otter, beaver, ermine, vole and Kodiak brown bear.

A lone bison, one of a herd of over 70 animals, wades offshore of Sitkalidak Island in the western Gulf of Alaska. Photo courtesy of the office of Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska

Male Kodiak brown bear can stand over 10 feet tall on their hind legs and weigh up to 1,500 pounds. Male bison, by comparison, may weigh up to 2,500 pounds, so the bears and bison have been known to mingle without fighting, Melissa Berns said.

Berns represents the Alutiiq Tribe of Old Harbor on the Intertribal Buffalo Council, one of 69 tribes in 19 states, with a collective herd of over 20,000 buffalo. The Native villages of Ruby and Stevens Village are the only other Alaska members of the council. ITBC members collectively manage over 32 million acres of tribal lands and have restored buffalo to nearly 1 million of those acres.

ITBC is committed to reestablishing buffalo herds on Indian lands in a way that promotes cultural enhancement, spiritual revitalization, ecological restoration and economic development, a goal in which they’re supported by Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, and Rep. Norma Torres, D-Calif.

This past week, Young and Torres introduced the Indian Buffalo Management Act.

“For hundreds of years, the American buffalo was central to the culture, spiritual wellbeing and livelihoods of our nation’s indigenous peoples,” said Young. “It may surprise some, but Alaska is home to a thriving herd on Sitkalidak Island managed by the Alutiiq people.”

The American buffalo, a North American species of bison, once roamed by the thousands across the United States, and were an important source of good, shelter, clothing and economic mobility for indigenous peoples across the American West. Then in the mid-19th century the decimation of the buffalo herds began.

As late as the end of the 20th century and into the 21st century, Yellowstone bison were being slaughtered in huge numbers because of fear that they were spreading a disease called brucellosis to cattle. Brucellosis is a bacterial disease which is highly contagious to cattle, bison, elk and deer. It is transmitted via aborted fetuses, although according to Morgan Warthin, a public affairs specialist with Yellowstone National Park, there has never been a documented case of brucellosis being transmitted from bison to cattle. “Testing positive for exposure does not mean an animal can transmit the disease” Warthin noted in an article for the national park.

“The tragic decimation of these iconic animals remains one of the darkest chapters in America’s history and we must be doing all that we can to reverse the damage done not only to the American buffalo, but to the way of life of Native peoples across our country,” Young said.