Wild Wood Bison to Return to Alaska

A new rule represents a victory in a 20-year battle to restore the species to the United States

A female wood bison gazes across a grassland. Wild bison disappeared from Alaska over a century ago. Officials hope to reintroduce the animals to the state next spring. (Credit: Nature’s Pics Online)

Wild wood bison may soon roam Alaska’s meadows for the first time in over a century. A new rule published last week by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) removes one of the last obstacles to reintroduce the animals to their ancient habitat.

Wood bison thrived in Alaska’s grasslands for thousands of years. However, the animals were completely wiped out by the early 1900s, possibly due to over-hunting and habitat loss. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) has been trying to reintroduce wood bison to their historical habitat for two decades, however, the bison’s federally threatened status imposes restrictions on a species and their critical habitat, complicating these efforts. Managing an established herd with regulated hunting is prohibited. Landowners and federal agencies are also required to consult with FWS before altering the habitat., Alaska landowners consequently resisted previous efforts to reintroduce the wood bison since the animals’ native habitat has a high potential for oil and gas development.

In its new rule — called the “10(j) rule” — FWS classifies Alaskan wood bison as a “nonessential experimental population.” This means that reintroduced herds can now coexist with oil and gas development, hunting, and recreation. The rule also gives ADF&G authority to manage the population and remove animals from the grasslands if reintroduction efforts fail.

A wood bison nurses her calf. A captive bison population will be used to establish the new wild herd in Alaska. (Credit: Nature’s Pics Online)

“The 10(j) is a bit like a Band-Aid on a big problem. It kind of gets us by,” said Tom Seaton, a wildlife biologist for ADF&G. “We can now reintroduce bison into [habitats] where there’s no opposition because there’s very little oil and gas prospects. But the really wonderful habitats — we can’t go there still.”

Seaton expects that ADF&G will be ready to establish a wild bison herd in the Innoko River Area next spring. The region is one of the bison’s three historical habitats in central Alaska, and it has little potential for petroleum development. The department previously expressed hope that successful establishment of bison in this region could help facilitate future reintroduction efforts in the other two historical grasslands, Yukon and Minto Flats — both extremely promising habitats for bison, but with a higher potential for oil and gas development.

Seaton said that ADF&G will closely monitor the new herd after the release next spring. The agency plans to radio-collar as many animals as possible to help track herd health and movement. “[Our goal is to] understand how we did on the release and how we can do better on the next one if ever get a chance to release them again,” he said.

A captive and healthy wood bison population in the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center (AWCC) will be used to seed the wild herds. The wood bison were originally brought over from Canada almost seven years ago in preparation for reintroducing the species to Alaska’s meadows. “It’s been uncomfortable to sit on pins and needles for [this long],” said Scott Michaelis, Marketing Director at AWCC. “It’s been a much more time-consuming process than any of the parties involved were originally expecting.”

A plains bison and her calf graze in a meadow. Plains bison are lighter-colored and smaller than wood bison. (Credit: Phil Schillaci)

A plains bison and her calf graze in a meadow. Plains bison are lighter-colored and smaller than wood bison. (Credit: Phil Schillaci)

Now that the 10(j) rule is published, there is still a lot of planning to do before next spring’s reintroduction. “Logistically, it will be a very interesting introductory effort,” Michaelis said. “We’ll be trucking them from the Wildlife Center in trailers up to Anchorage, Alaska. We’re building these custom trailers so that they can fit together like puzzle pieces.” The unique trailers will allow easier loading onto C-130 aircrafts that can then take the bison to their new home. Michaelis said they are still finalizing plans and numbers, but they hope to reintroduce around 100 bison to the new habitat.

Wood bison closely resemble their well-known cousins, the plains bison. However, the two subspecies do have some distinct genetic and physical differences. Most notably, wood bison have a darker coat and are substantially larger. At about 2,000 pounds, wood bison are actually the largest land animal in North America.

The species’ size and complete eradication from the United States makes this ongoing effort even more worthwhile to wildlife biologists. “Probably the biggest wildlife conservation achievement of this century if — we can pull it off — is restoring this charismatic [large animal] to its original range. Those opportunities don’t really exist anymore,” said Seaton. He said that these types of reintroduction efforts have already been done with most species. Publication of the 10(j) rule is a huge victory in the 20-year battle to make sure wood bison don’t get left behind.

Press release, Environmental Assessment

This article was originally published at The Wildlife Society, May 16, 2014.