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Deep snowpack forces bison onto roads, driveways; 2 wrecks reported

Elena Powers/Facebook
A half-dozen bison looking for food wandered into the driveway of Elena Powers' home on Spruce Road in the agricultural area south of Delta Junction last month.

Bison have been spending their winters in the farmlands near Delta Junction for decades. But this year’s deep, icy snow pack has forced the animals to look for forage in farms and onto roads to get around. And that’s put both the bison and drivers at risk.

A video making the rounds on YouTube illustrates what can happen when vehicles encounter bison on a roadway. It shows how with no other way to get around the vehicle except through deep snow off the side of the road, the bison charged and trampled over the top of the car.

The car was seriously damaged, but the driver reportedly was OK. Neither he nor the person who recorded the video couldn’t be reached. An Alaska State Trooper spokesperson says the agency hasn't gotten any reports of bison-related wreck. But Delta Junction-based state Fish and Game Department wildlife tech Clint Cooper says he’s gotten at least two reports of run-in between the animals and vehicles, one of which killed a bison.

“They’re having a tough time right now, getting through that ice crust and getting to their normal forage,” he said in an interview last week.

Cooper says the December storms that dumped snow and then rain on top snow have made it very hard for the animals to move around and forage.

“And so, the bison are sticking to the road more, more so than normal, that’s for sure,” he said. “They’re doing whatever they can to stay out of that snow with that crust on the top.”

Cooper says it’s tough for bison and other wildlife to slog through 3 or 4 feet of snow. And he says the 2-inch layer of ice inflicts injury as they bust through it and then lift their legs back up and out of it.

“It’s painful,” he said. “It’ll scrape and cut up their legs when get through that ice.”

Alaska Department of Fish and Game
The 300-head Delta Bison Herd is descended from a couple dozen plains bison from Montana introduced into the Interior nearly a century ago. The herd, the biggest of four that've become established around the region, overwinters in and around the Delta Bison Range south of Delta Junction.

So the bison are taking to roadways around the agricultural area south of Delta, including the Alaska Highway and side roads like Barley Way, where the car-trampling incident occurred.

“There’s been quite a few folks that’ve expressed some concern about the bison being on the roads,” Cooper said. “And I’ve talked to a few people who’ve had some damage to their vehicle.”

Farmers around the ag area are accustomed to groups of the Delta Bison Herd barging through fences and hanging out in fields and other cleared areas during the winter. But Cooper says this year, with the lack of natural forage, farmers have told him the problem is even worse.

“Anywhere they are able find some hay, they’re trying to get to that,” he said.

Cooper says in response, Fish and Game and the state Forestry Division are working together on a project to clear some paths and forage areas in the 90-thousand-acre Delta Junction Bison Range, just west of the ag project.

“Forestry brought down a D7 bulldozer from Fairbanks, and they were planning to do some habitat work out on the Delta Bison Range,” he said. “And so we were able to take that dozer and have him redirect his efforts and have him plow some snow and break through some of that crust.”

Cooper says Fish and Game thinks that’ll give at least some of the bison another place to forage. He says in the meanwhile, area residents should be on the lookout for bison on the roads. And he says if they encounter them, drivers should either just be patient and give them time to move away. Or, if they must get by the animals, motorists should proceed slowly, and give them a wide berth.

Tim Ellis has been working as a KUAC reporter/producer since 2010. He has more than 30 years experience in broadcast, print and online journalism.