Bringing more BIG to Alaska

[by Danielle Lattuga]

The “bigness” of Alaska endears the state to residents and visitors alike. It’s not just the sheer vastness of ocean, mountain, forest, tundra and glacier; it’s also the massive animals that capture our attention. Some might say that Alaska is big enough, but it’s about to get bigger: After an absence of hundreds of years, mammoth-sized wood bison will soon roam freely in Alaska’s sedge meadows again.

What’s a Wood Bison?

Most people are probably familiar with the wood bison’s cousin, the plains bison, but the two shouldn’t be confused. The wood bison is the largest land mammal in the Western Hemisphere; bulls can weigh 2,000 lbs. They are better adapted to northern climates than the plains bison, with a taller hump and a larger head that gives them greater ability to sweep snow aside in order to access the grasses and sedges that comprise their diet. Their abundance of hair also gives them an extraordinary “set of bangs.”

It’s not known exactly when or how the wood bison disappeared from Alaska’s landscape, but oral history tells us that they were, not long ago, an important animal to Alaskans—providing food, shelter, hides and sinew. When they died off, Alaskans not only lost a strong resource, they also lost the only animal to fill the niche of the grazer in the sedge meadow ecosystem, whose role it was to recirculate nutrients back into the soil.

The Long Trek to Reintroduction

Over 20 years ago, Bob Stevenson, a Fort Yukon area biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) came across a specific species of grass, from the genus Calamagrostis. He knew it was a grass that bison eat and began to wonder if the area had been bison habitat. Before long, he started talking to Athabascan elders and heard their intact oral histories remembering bison. This is where the story of wood bison reintroduction into Alaska began.

One of the greatest hurdles was to establish a designation through the U.S. Endangered Species Act that fostered reintroduction. Working together, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the ADF&G eventually acquired a 10(j) ruling that established provisions for managing wood bison as a nonessential experimental population.

“This special rule dramatically reduced the level of restrictions (that would come with an endangered species designation) and made it possible for the program to address concerns brought up by private and commercial interests in potential reintroduction areas—a critical piece to success,” says Cathie Harms, Regional Program Manager of ADF&G, Division of Wildlife Conservation.

By then, ADF&G had identified three areas that would provide the best habitat for wood bison, but they quickly settled on the Lower Innoko/Yukon River area because of strong local support for reintroduction.

The next hurdle? Finding the bison and the facility to start the recovery. In 2003, ADF&G came into ownership of 13 wood bison that had been imported into Alaska by someone who didn’t have the appropriate permits and had to surrender the animals. Enter, the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center (AWCC). Founder Mike Miller already had experience caring for plains bison at the AWCC, so the 13 bison were transported there. In 2008, 53 additional wood bison were obtained from disease-free stock in Canada, and the program has grown in support and bison since, with upwards of 135 animals now living at the AWCC.

“I never cease to be impressed when I am standing near an animal of that size, and more people should have that experience. This is a rare opportunity to reintroduce a species that is no longer in our landscape,” says Tom Yeager, Operations Director at the AWCC.

A True Alaskan Effort

It’s likely that the first release of bison into the Innoko area will occur this spring, thanks to representatives from local communities, regional population centers, landowners, Alaska Native communities, wildlife conservation interests, industry and federal and state agencies who all played a role in putting together a management plan and securing adequate funding. 

“This has been a truly unique, collaborative effort. Players from the far left, the far right and everyone in between have come together to make this a reality,” says Scott Michaelis, Director of Sales and Marketing at the AWCC.

The Release

In order to give the bison the best chance of thriving in their new habitat, around 100 of them will be transported and then contained in temporary enclosures, so they can settle from the stress of the move. They’ll arrive right before calving, which is critical timing, since wood bison tend to center their home range on calving areas. Animals will be closely monitored and several will be released with satellite or radio collars, so that biologists can help ensure a successful reintroduction. In the meantime, the AWCC will continue to provide important care to the remaining herd at the AWCC and educate people about the program. Satellite data will be a welcome addition to their already vibrant curriculum.

“The future of Alaska’s wood bison is bright,” says Michaelis. “Alaska is the only U.S. state that had wood bison in the past, and we are eagerly looking forward to seeing where they go and what they do. The management plan provides for the benefit of Alaskans across the state and wouldn’t have been possible without the support of so many Alaskans and the vision of Bob Stevenson—to which we are very grateful.” 

To learn more: alaskawildlife.org

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