FILE - In this Feb. 3, 2010 file photo, a wood bison bull recovers from testing as Mike Miller, right, and others protect the animal from other bulls at Miller's Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center in Portage, Alaska. Alaska wildlife officials are preparing to release North America's largest land mammal into its native U.S. habitat for the first time in more than a century. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game on Sunday, March 22, 2015, plans to begin moving wood bison from a conservation center south of Anchorage to the village of Shageluk, the staging area for the animals' release into the Innoko Flats about 350 miles southwest of Fairbanks. A hundred wood bison will be released after they're acclimated in a few weeks. (AP Photo/The Anchorage Daily News, Erik Hill, File)  THE MAT-SU VALLEY FRONTIERSMAN OUT

FILE - In this Feb. 3, 2010 file photo, a wood bison bull recovers from testing as Mike Miller, right, and others protect the animal from other bulls at Miller's Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center in Portage, Alaska. Alaska wildlife officials are preparing to release North America's largest land mammal into its native U.S. habitat for the first time in more than a century. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game on Sunday, March 22, 2015, plans to begin moving wood bison from a conservation center south of Anchorage to the village of Shageluk, the staging area for the animals' release into the Innoko Flats about 350 miles southwest of Fairbanks. A hundred wood bison will be released after they're acclimated in a few weeks. (AP Photo/The Anchorage Daily News, Erik Hill, File) THE MAT-SU VALLEY FRONTIERSMAN OUT

Alaska prepares for wood bison return after a century

  • By Dan Joling
  • Saturday, March 21, 2015 10:06pm
  • News

ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Alaska wildlife officials are preparing to release North America’s largest land mammal into its native U.S. habitat for the first time in more than a century.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game on Sunday plans to begin moving wood bison from a conservation center south of Anchorage to the village of Shageluk, the staging area for the animals’ release into the Innoko Flats about 350 miles southwest of Fairbanks.

A hundred wood bison will be released after they’re acclimated in a few weeks.

“This has been an incredibly long project — 23 years in the making,” biologist Cathie Harms said. “To say we’re excited is an understatement.”

Wood bison are the larger of two subspecies of American bison but did not roam in Lower 48 states. The smaller subspecies are plains bison, which were not native to Alaska but were introduced to the state in 1928, where they have thrived.

Bull wood bison weigh 2,000 pounds and stand 6-feet-tall at the shoulder. They feed on grasses, sedges and forbs and wider variety of other plants, including Alaska’s abundant willow.

Wood bison flourished for thousands of years in Alaska but disappeared in the 1800s or early 1900s. No one knows why.

The state had a strong interest in reintroduction as a source of food for subsistence hunters and as a game animal for sport hunting, but plans ran into a political snag.

In 2008, the state imported 53 wood bison from a national park in Canada, adding to a smaller herd that was held at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center in Portage.

However, wood bison are a threatened species and state officials worried that the federal government would designate their new home in the wild as critical habitat, requiring consultation with federal agencies before oil and gas drilling or other development could occur.

The problems were worked out. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2013 declared that wood bison reintroduced in Alaska would be considered an experimental population not essential to the continued existence of the species. Wood bison will be managed by state wildlife officials and exempt from certain restrictions in the Endangered Species Act.

The bison will be flown in 20-foot containers that can hold seven adult cows in individual stalls or up to 17 younger bison. Two containers will be trucked Sunday to Anchorage and flown by commercial carrier for the hour flight to Shageluk. A C-130 from Lynden Air Cargo, one of the multiple corporate sponsors involved, can carry two containers each flight.

Half the initial herd moved will be adult cows. About 25 are pregnant.

The rest of the initial herd will be juveniles 2 years old or younger. Bulls will be barged to the area in summer.

The Fish and Game Department does not expect predators to be a problem. Canada has reintroduced five herds, Harms said.

“Wolves don’t seem to know what to do with them,” she said, and Alaska did not record a bear or a wolf killing a plains bison until nearly 30 years after they were introduced 87 years ago.

The state hopes to complete the flights by Tuesday but will proceed slowly if there are snags. Wood bison are very large, very powerful wild animals, Harms said.

“We’re making them do something they don’t want to do,” she said. “Calming agents” will be available to sedate bison if needed.

Once in Shageluk, the bison will be kept in pens several acres large before release in two or three weeks.

“When they’re in good shape, that’s when we’re going to start opening the door and letting them go,” Harms said.

More in News

Image via Alaska Board of Fisheries
Statewide shellfish meeting rescheduled

This comes after the board bumped back its Southeast and Yakutat shellfish meeting

A State of Alaska epidemiology bulletin can be found at https://dhss.alaska.gov/dph/Epi/pages/default.aspx.
State updates STI protocol after reported drop

The state has been experiencing an outbreak since 2017

The Kenai Fire Department headquarters are photographed on Feb. 13, 2018, in Kenai, Alaska. (Peninsula Clarion file)
Police identify remains found in burned car

Kenai Police and Fire departments responded to a car fire at Beaver Creek in Kenai on Jan. 7

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy addresses members of the press on Monday, Jan. 17, 2022, in Juneau, Alaska. (Screenshot)
Dunleavy talks upcoming session, lambasts media

In a press conference Monday, Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy discussed his goals… Continue reading

Courtesy photo / Juneau Raptor Center
This golden eagle was rescued by the Juneau Raptor Center over the summer after being found weak and thin.
Rescue center, birdwatchers look back on 2021

Juneau Christmas bird count was way down this year.

This satellite image taken by Himawari-8, a Japanese weather satellite operated by Japan Meteorological Agency and released by National Institute of Information and Communications Technology (NICT), shows an undersea volcano eruption at the Pacific nation of Tonga Saturday, Jan. 15, 2022. (NICT via AP)
Tsunami advisory issued after eruption

An undersea volcano erupted Friday near the South Pacific island of Tonga, triggering concerns of damaging waves across Pacific coastlines

Flowers bloom at Soldotna City Hall on Wednesday, June 24, 2021 in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Multiple public works projects underway in Soldotna

Soldotna City Council received an update on eight different projects

COVID-19. (Image courtesy CDC)
Hospitalizations rise as state reports increase in COVID cases

There were a total of 112 COVID-related hospitalizations in Alaska as of Friday

Most Read