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Wood bison to roam Alaska again

FAIRBANKS, ALASKA — At 2,000 pounds, an adult male wood bison is North America’s largest land mammal. It dwarfs even the mighty moose, which grow to about 1,600 pounds.

These giant herbivores have been gone from Alaska for about a century. But this month, a long-planned reintroduction project is scheduled to transport a herd of about 100 to Shageluk in the state's western Interior.

Herds of wood bison once roamed northern Canada and much of Alaska. The bison — scientific name Bison bison athabascae — are a northern subspecies of the American bison that once lived in great numbers on the plains of Canada and the contiguous U.S. The wood bison is a heftier, shaggier subspecies of its southern cousin, and as with the plains bison, hunting and other pressures dramatically reduced its numbers in the past few hundred years. By the early 20th century, the world wood bison population had dropped to about 300, almost all in northwestern Canada, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Today, several thousand bison live in Canada. Fort Yukon biologist Bob Stephenson launched the effort to repopulate Alaska with wood bison in 1991, leading to the importation of 53 bison from Alberta’s Elk Island National Park in 2008. The herd has lived and grown at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center in Girdwood.

One of the last obstacles to releasing the herd came last year, when the animals were declared a “nonessential experimental population” under the Endangered Species Act, which will allow for future hunting of the bison if the herd grows in its new home.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game plans to fly the bison to Shageluk, about 300 miles west of Anchorage, in shipping containers aboard a Hercules C-130 cargo plane between March 22 and 31. Biologists will release the bison some time after breakup.

The bison transplant isn’t Alaska’s first. Alaska’s plains bison herds in the Delta Junction, Copper River, Chitina River and Farewell areas are decedents of bison transplanted from Montana in 1928, according to Fish and Game.

Photo courtesy Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center/Doug Lindstrand
Photo courtesy Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center/Doug Lindstrand