Wood Bison Restoration

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.

Timeline

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.

bisoncomparisonHistory

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 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Office of Authority’s Endangered Species. 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 AWCC 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 had 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 in providing services and goods at little or no 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 place, 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.

The Release

In March 2015, transportation of wood bison to their new home in Shageluk, Alaska began. 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– a species returned to Alaska after a 100-year absence.

There are currently no other wood bison in Alaska, although there are plains bison in several locations. AWCC has plans for additional wood bison releases in the future and will work with ADF&G in their efforts. With the recent completion of Bison Hall at the AWCC, this new facility pays an educational tribute to the Wood Bison Reintroduction Project.  This space provides room to accommodate year-round education for school groups, as well as 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.

2020 Update

Wood bison reintroduced in Southwest Alaska see another year of loss, but with a silver lining
By Mary Auld, KUAC – Fairbanks -October 21, 2020

Read full article HERE.

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