For the last 10,000 years the Athabascan natives of Alaska relied on the wood bison for food, clothing and shelter. Then they disappeared. North America’s largest land mammal, victim of ecological change and over hunting were thought to be extinct, but thanks to one of the world’s greatest conservation projects, wood bison have returned to Alaska. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game made the commitment over 20 years ago to return the wood bison to their native range in Central-Alaska in partnership with the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, who currently cares for the only captive herd in the United States. Following the state’s acquisition of wood bison and years of careful management by AWCC, 130 wood bison were successfully released into the wild in spring of 2015.
This magnificent animal stood at the doorway of extinction with its numbers crashing to fewer than 300 at the turn of the 20 th century. If not for the work of conservationists from the early 1900s to the present, this stalwart creature would surely have joined the ranks of the dinosaurs and wooly mammoth. Efforts to restore free-ranging populations in parts of their original range in Alaska began 20 years ago. In collaboration with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center (AWCC) worked to reintroduce the wood bison back into the Alaskan wilderness. In 2003, 13 wood bison were brought to AWCC from a disease-free herd in the Yukon Territory in Canada. The first wood bison calves born in the state of Alaska in over 100 years were born at AWCC in 2005. In 2008, AWCC received 53 calves from Canada and placed them with the existing AWCC herd. Since 2006, AWCC has seen the birth of multiple calves every spring.
Wood bison were down listed from “endangered” to “threatened” status in 2012. A special regulation was adopted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in May 2014 declaring them a Nonessential Experimental Population under the 10(j) section of the Endangered Species Act. Among other things, this status stipulates that critical habitat cannot be designated for wood bison, and allows hunting based on sustained yield principles, as established by ADF&G. This ruling allowed for the reintroduction to take action, and those involved began planning for the release in the following spring.
The Wood Bison Management Plan was developed by a diverse group of individuals representing 28 interest groups which included local communities, regional population centers, landowners, Alaska Native interests, wildlife conservation interests, industry, and State and Federal agencies. The project cultivated unprecedented spirit of sharing and finding common solutions, which guided plan development.
After decades of planning, 130 wood bison were released into the Alaskan wilderness in the Lower Innoko-Yukon Rivers Area. 50 adult cows and juveniles (both cows and bulls) ranging from 200-1400 lb. each were flown to Shageluk in late March 2015 and released in early April 2015. In May 2015, 12 adult bulls were driven to Nenana, then barged to the area and released near the cows and juveniles. The bulls each weighed between 900 and 2,400 lbs.
Most of the wood bison are wearing radio collars and will be intensively tracked for several years to monitor their movements and population growth. Wood Bison project biologist Tom Seaton reported that in the Spring of 2015, 15 calves had been born in the wild after the release, and in 2016 healthy additional calves were born. The Alaskan wood bison have been maintained and grown under the supervision of the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center staff since they were brought to Alaska. A small herd of wood bison remain at AWCC, where visitors and residents can see and learn about these majestic animals.