The giant mammal that once freely roamed America’s last frontier is making a comeback.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game announced last week that they are moving forward with a planned relocation of one hundred wood bison to the Innoko Flats about 350 miles south of Fairbanks. According to state biologists, the project has been in the works for the last 23 years.
The first step in relocating the bison will be to airlift the herd via 20-foot containers that can hold seven adult cows at a time. Once relocated to a semi-enclosed portion of their new habitat, biologists will monitor their acclimation to the new environment over a period of a few weeks. The final step will be letting them out of the enclosure to roam freely.
When most people think of bison they tend to picture the plains bison, the smaller genetic cousin of the wood bison. Wood bison never roamed the lower 48, preferring to graze on the willow plants that are common to Alaska and the northern Canadian provinces.
Bull wood bison often weigh upwards of 2,000 pounds and, at a shoulder height of six feet, stand taller than the average American male.
Like the plains bison, wood bison numbers declined sharply in the early 1900s due to over-hunting and habitat loss. Today they are listed as a “Threatened” species under Canada’s Species At Risk Act.
Wood bison are not officially listed under the American Endangered Species Act, and Alaskan officials want to keep it that way. Like many states wishing to avoid the regulatory issues that come with an official listing, Alaska Fish and Game officials agreed to closely monitor the population in exchange for certain exemptions from the Endangered Species Act.
Fish and Game does not expect predators to be an issue in the reintroduction project. “Wolves don’t seem to know what to do with them,” said biologist Cathie Harms.
She notes that game officials did not record a bear or wolf killing a plains bison until 30 years after they were introduced to Alaska in 1928.
Officials are hopeful that the reintroduction process will go as smoothly as possible, but are nonetheless taking precautions. Half of the herd’s cows are pregnant, and biologists have “calming agents” on hand to sedate the bison if necessary.