For the last 10,000 years, the Athabascan people of Alaska relied on the wood bison for food, clothing, and shelter. Then the wood bison disappeared. North America’s largest land mammal, a victim of ecological change and overhunting, 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 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.
Wood Bison last sighted in Eastern Alaska. During the restoration efforts, researchers drew valuable insights from oral histories preserved by native populations of these majestic animals.
Wood Bison declared extinct.
Small herd discovered in Canada. This sparked the movement to restore populations of wood bison in Alaska and North America.
A captive breeding and holding center were necessary to support stock for the restoration effort. After being deemed a perfect fit, the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center became home to 13 wood bison yearlings transferred from the Yukon.
After the first herd became successfully integrated at the Wildlife Center, a second herd of 53 wood bison from Canada was transferred into AWCC care.
A special regulation was adopted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, declaring wood bison 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 particular regulation allowed for the release efforts to continue.
A herd of 100 wood bison, comprised of females, calves and juvenile bulls were flown to a landing strip in Shageluk, Alaska for a “soft release”. After their transfer, they were kept in a temporary enclosure to adjust to their new surroundings.
30 wood bison bulls were transferred to the release site by a barge, which floated down the Innoko river to meet the remote area occupied the female herd. After a successful transport, all 130 wood bison were released into the wild.
New calves are born in the wild! The herd continues to adapt to their surroundings as they grow their herd. Reports from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game state that the herd is healthy and thriving in their natural, wild habitat.
UPDATE: Alaska’s wild wood bison population is prospering. One young cow is capturing the hearts of rural communities across western Alaska as she explores the lower Kuskokwim. Since her release in 2015, bison 124 has been on the move. By August of this year, she had been sighted by folks near Aniak, Kalskag, Bethel, Kwethluk, Tuntatuliak, and Eek. During an aerial survey on Tuesday, biologists saw her near Quinhagak on the coast of the Bering Sea.
Despite being over 200 miles from her release point near Shageluk, she is in excellent body condition and appears to be one of the fattest wild bison in the State. During her amazing journey, bison 124 has become an important contributor to wood bison conservation as she identifies suitable habitat where future generations of bison may prosper.
While bison 124 was exploring the Bering coast, 98% of the herd has remained within 50 miles of their release point near Shageluk. During the last eight months, there have been no known mortalities in the herd which is amazing for any group of wild animals. The population is increasing and currently has about 138 individuals. The excellent body condition of these animals suggests that this experimental population is well on its way to succeeding in the wild.
This magnificent animal stood in the doorway of extinction with its numbers crashing to fewer than 300 at the turn of the 20th 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 wood bison 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 Alaska’s 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 downlisted 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 an unprecedented spirit of sharing and finding common solutions, which guided plan development.
After decades of planning, 130 wood bison were released into Alaska’s wilderness in the Lower Innoko-Yukon Rivers Area. Fifty adult cows and juveniles (both cows and bulls) ranging from 200-1400 lb. each was flown to Shageluk in late March 2015 and released in early April 2015. In May 2015, twelve 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, fifteen calves had been born in the wild after the release, and in 2016 additional healthy calves were born. The Alaska 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 remains at AWCC, where visitors and residents can see and learn about these majestic animals.