HomeOutdoorsNewsAlaska Cuts Popular Bison Hunt Short After 1/3 of Delta Herd Dies of Starvation

Alaska Cuts Popular Bison Hunt Short After 1/3 of Delta Herd Dies of Starvation

by Jon D. B.

Alaskan journalist Tim Ellis reports the states most popular hunt, the Delta Junction bison hunt, has been cut short after drastic losses to the herd.

Described as “Alaska’s longest and most popular hunting season” by Ellis, the Delta Junction bison hunt was called off early this year and will not extend into 2023. The reason?

“Last winter was a winter like we’ve never seen,” Bob Schmidt, the state Department of Fish and Game Delta-area wildlife biologist, tells Ellis. “And it was really the rainstorm right after Christmas that was really hard on wildlife across much of Interior Alaska, and particularly bison.”

As a result, around 180 bison, which is nearly a third of the 600 head in the Delta herd, starved to death leading into spring of 2022. This is triple the winter casualties found in 2021. Schmidt cites the bison were unable to feed after harsh storms sheeted “impenetrable” layers of snow and ice. Typically, bison are experts at using their massive heads and horns to shovel through snow and reach grass, brush, and whatever vegetation survives. But if enough snow and ice freezes hard and fast, it might as well be concrete to wildlife.

With this being the case, Alaskan Fish and Game officials had to completely redo their 2022 bison hunt gameplan. The Delta Junction bison hunt is one Alaskan hunters covet, and that lasts from October into March of the next year. This year, however, the hunt was cut short by the state after just two weeks. Only 50 animals were taken as opposed to the initial 120 ceiling.

44,000 Hunters Applied to Join Alaska’s Delta Junction Bison Hunt

The early cutoff is a staunch demonstration of the marriage of hunting and conservation in Alaska. If there’s not enough bison to go around, then the state does not allow hunting of the species, period. Yet the Delta bison hunt remains the most popular for any game species in the northernmost corner of America, Ellis reiterates.

In fact, over 44,000 hunters submitted applications in 2021 for a permit to harvest a Delta bison. “That’s definitely the highest ever,” Schmidt adds. Only 120 were on the table. But after harsh winter losses, a mere 50 of those 44,000 hunters were able to follow the process through to fruition.

In the end, this hunt is about conserving the species, regardless. The fees from applications (which can range from $5 to $10 in the state), $25 residential hunting licenses, and then the costs of permits/tags all go towards Alaskan conservation efforts. But when the bison aren’t doing well themselves, we humans must go without or risk pushing them back to the brink of extinction.

“They looked really bad well into the summer,” Schmidt continues. “Even the survivors were really skinny and in poor shape. Normally, they’d be hunting all the way ’til March. But this time it was, y’know, ‘Get up here, wham, bam, get it done.’ Y’know, no messing around kind of deal.”

‘This bison hunt is pretty much a once-in-a-lifetime hunt’

Thankfully, the biologist and his team are also seeing sings of the Delta herd’s rebound in 2022. If this follows through another winter, then Alaska’s Fish and Game will pull out a full season in October of 2023. Especially considering that the Delta herd itself may have grown too large for it’s area.

“We probably don’t want to let it get all the way back to 600,” he cites. “There are some agreements we’ve got in place with the (agriculture) community to try and stay closer to that 360.”

North American bison (BISON BISON ATHABASCAE) IN FOREST IN WINTER, ALASKA. (Photo by Werner LAYER/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Only bears and wolves are capable of taking down most bison (outside us humans). This can lead to protected herds multiplying out of control. Which is another area where state-sanctioned hunts become crucial to conservation, agriculture, and Alaska at large. And when hunters do harvest bison, the rewards are great. Hundreds of pounds of meat result from each individual, and the state has laws in place to prevent waste. Let alone the once-in-a-lifetime experience of hunting an Alaskan bison, then mounting a trophy of your own after harvesting all that meat.

“This bison hunt is pretty much a once-in-a-lifetime hunt,” Schmidt decrees. And he does feel for those other 70 hunters who didn’t get to follow through on their permit. In his personal opinion, these hunters should consider appealing to the state Board of Game. Each would need to do so before the April deadline.

This could allow for another opportunity to re-apply for permits for the 2024 hunt. It would also allow hunters to ask the board to waive the required waiting period, Ellis reports.