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.
Conservation and education remain a primary focus for AWCC, and for our largest conservation project, we partnered with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) to restore Wood Bison to Alaska. AWCC had received permits to have Wood Bison through the USFWS, Office of Authority’s Endangered Species Office. In 2005, a Memorandum of Understanding between AWCC and ADF&G was signed, outlining the responsibilities for AWCC in the captive management of Wood Bison. At the time, AWCC had genetically-pure Plains Bison onsite. These animals were moved to Sand Point, Alaska to be managed by the Native Alaskans in the region, where they remain today. In 2006, 13 Wood Bison from Canada were transferred to AWCC. A captive breeding program began, and in 2008 60 Wood Bison were brought to the Center from Elk Island, funded through a grant from Turner Endangered Species Fund to the State of Alaska’s Fish and Game Department. AWCC devoted 250 acres to Wood Bison habitat. The herd has grown to 150 plus healthy, generically-pure animals.
AWCC worked diligently with the Alaska Legislature, local communities and national media to provide education on the Wood Bison Reintroduction Project. Community presentations and other forums increased public awareness of the Wood Bison Reintroduction Project and its importance to the State of Alaska and the conservation effort nationwide. The Alaska business community showed tremendous support providing services and goods at no or little cost. As an example, hay delivery for the length of the project (over 7 years) was provided at no cost. Grants from local businesses aided in the overall costs of the project. Volunteers came together and helped erect fences and feeders for the wood bison herd. This project was truly embraced by Alaskans.
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.
In March 2015, Wood Bison began transport to their new home in Shageluk, Alaska. Loading 100 Wood Bison into special containers, they were transported to Anchorage, Alaska where they were loaded onto a C130 aircraft and flown to Shageluk’ s Innoko Valley. They are now roaming free, and eating natural sedge grass – a species returned to Alaska after a 100-year absence.
There is currently no other Wood Bison in Alaska, although there are Plains Bison in several locations. AWCC plans Wood Bison releases in the future, and will work with ADF&G in their effort. AWCC now begins a focus on building Bison Hall, which will pay an educational tribute to the Wood Bison Reintroduction Project. This new facility will provide room to accommodate year-round education for school groups, and community and visitor use. Currently, no facility is dedicated to education exclusively. The “working barn” was built for storage and space for daily animal care.