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Off the Beaten Path: Wood bison are back; it’s a big deal

By Bjorn Dihle

When I was 19, I encountered my first wood bison. I was riding a mountain bike across Canada, near Liard Hot Springs in British Columbia, when I saw a hulking animal in the ditch. I stopped on the empty road; whoever hit the animal had driven or been towed away. It lay panting in rain and wind, staring off into the distance. The sheer size of the animal was awe-inspiring — I was drawn to it and afraid of it at the same time. I rode away feeling guilty and helpless, but there were no phones nearby and I didn’t think Canadian officials would smile upon an American kid trying to put a threatened animal, even if it was injured beyond repair, out of its misery.

A few hours later, I nervously approached a dozen wood bison feeding at the edge of the forest. They paused and idly watched me. It felt like I was looking through a portal into a lost world. I slowly rode east, too scared to stop pedaling.

Wood bison, one of the two subspecies of American bison (the other is the more famous plains subspecies) and the largest terrestrial mammal in North America, were listed as extinct during the last century. Buffalo are native only to Africa and Asia, though the term “buffalo” is commonly used to refer to North American bison. Wood bison, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service numbered around 168,000 in the early 1800s and inhabited much of the taiga of Alaska and northwest Canada. The species’ population was wiped out due to overhunting, disease and hybridization by the 1950s.

In 1957, a herd of a couple hundred wood bison were discovered in northern Alberta. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service states: “Most of the world population of wood bison is derived from the original 37 animals captured and relocated from (this) isolated northern population. Recovery actions, guided by the Canadian National Recovery Plan, have led to the establishment of seven free-ranging disease-free herds with a total of approximately 4,400 animals in Canada.”

Though there have been no wild wood bison in Alaska for more than 100 years, Native people living in the Yukon Flats still have stories of hunting them. The state’s current population of plains bison were transplanted from Montana to Delta Junction in 1928. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game estimates there are currently 900 animals in four different herds.

ADF&G conceived the wood bison reintroduction program in 1992. The Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, located near Girdwood, working with ADF&G and the USFWS, received 13 Canadian wood bison in 2003 and an additional 53 in 2008. The AWCC herd has increased, the paperwork for reintroducing the animals has gone through and this Sunday — weather permitting — 100 wood bison will begin the process of being reintroduced to the wild.

“This is big!” said ADF&G Regional Program Manager Catherine Harms via phone while taking a break from getting the bison ready for transport at the AWCC. “This is the last large mammal that has been missing from the United States since the late 1800s and early 1900s. Bringing wood bison back to Alaska and the U.S. is pretty exciting.”

The herd — half of which are pregnant cows, and half of which are sub-adults — is scheduled to be flown to Shageluk, a small village in the Yukon-Koyukuk region, on Sunday. Harms, having worked off and on with the wood bison reintroduction program since its genesis 23 years ago, was excited but also stressed. Transporting the largest terrestrial animal in North America presents risks, mostly to the animals themselves. ADF&G and the AWCC staff have been working with biologists and other professionals — including Canadian biologist Wes Olson, who helped establish seven wood bison herds in Canada, and Alaska bison experts Bob Stephenson, Rita St. Louis and Tom Seaton. One of the biggest hurdles workers are focused on now is increasing the probability individual bison do not die or become injured during the flight. At Shageluk, the herd will be “soft released,” meaning they’ll first be released in pens. Once the stress of travel passes and they’re acclimatized to the region, they’ll be led away using food to entice them into the surrounding taiga. Gradually, they’ll be weaned off hay and switch to eating native vegetation.

Scott Michaelis, director of sales and marketingof the AWCC, said that though it was a once in a lifetime opportunity to play a part in reintroducing a native species, it was hard to say “good-bye” to animals.

“The wood bison reintroduction is a little bittersweet for Wildlife Center staff,” Michaelis wrote in an email. “We are incredibly proud to be playing a role in such a monumental effort, and look forward to sharing this animal with generations to come.”

It’s possible 20 bulls may be barged up river after breakup to add more diversity to the herd. Depending on how fast the population grows, there will likely be some hunting permitted in five to 15 years. ADF&G wrote in 2003: “If allowed to grow to about 400 animals, a herd could support a harvest of 40 or more bison a year.” There’s currently no plan to reestablish wood bison in other regions of Alaska, although Harms said the Yukon Flats and Minto Flats are prime habitat.

The reintroduction of wood bison serves as a reminder that we can gain wisdom from our past mistakes, and evolve. This Sunday, weather permitting, wood bison will become synonymous with hope for the future of our country’s wildlife.

For more information on wood bison reintroduction check out the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center’s website: http://www.alaskawildlife.org.

• Bjorn Dihle is a writer based out of Juneau. He can be reached at bjorndihle@yahoo.com.

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