It was a cold winter’s day in Portage, Alaska on March 19, 2009. The one-ton bison expelled angry streams of hot air through his nostrils before sinking his horn into a handler’s hip. With a thrust of its powerful neck, he threw him into the air like a rag doll. The man landed in the snow some feet away from the point of impact. This was part of the risk of reintroducing North America’s largest land mammal back to the Alaskan wild.
“Just a little brush up against a big animal,” said Steve Mendive, the man who was gored by the bison. Mendive was at the time director of development at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center (AWCC), who was trying to corral some 20 bison into chutes in the testing facility to check overall health of the herd.
Mendive’s brother, Aaron, was similarly gored in 2014. Aaron sustained far more severe injuries than Steve – multiple lacerations, broken bones, and nerve damage. “When you’re doing a handling, there is a risk,” Aaron said.
Both brothers felt the risk was worth it. “It was an experience – I wouldn’t trade it for nothing.” Aaron said. “Me and my brother are the only two that, during this project, were hit by a wood bison.”
Starting in 2003, the AWCC has been responsible for housing and caring for America’s only captive herd of wood bison for the purpose of breeding and eventual reintroduction into their historical range of interior Alaska. The bison were brought into the state from neighboring Canada, where disease free herds still existed.In the boreal forests of North America, wood bison have roamed for thousands of years, but by the 1800s, scientists believe the wood bison became extirpated, or locally extinct, from the state. I had the privilege of being an intern in 2011 and 2012 during some of this process. The reintroduction occurred in 2015.
The Wood Bison's Historical Range
So wood bison are native to Alaska. But where did they go? Well, around 100 years ago, people didn’t really know much and/or care about wildlife conservation, so hunting wasn’t exactly monitored. The Alaskan population was so over hunted, that they never really recovered. A few bad winters wiped out the remaining few bison. They were thought to be extinct worldwide in 1941, but a group of scientists flying over a remote part of northern Canada discovered a small herd of bison in 1957. Upon landing and doing blood tests, they found that they were indeed pure wood bison and not wood bison/plains bison hybrids. Shortly after, the Canadian wood bison restoration program started. From this herd, the population grew and in 2003, 13 wood bison were brought from the Yukon Territory in Canada to the AWCC in Portage, Alaska.
The wood bison (scientific name is bison bison athabascae) is different from the better-know plains bison (bison bison bison) seen at Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. Wood bison are on average 200 pounds or so heavier than plains bison. Adult bull plains bison can top out around 2,000 pounds, which means an adult male wood bison, can tip the scales at a whopping 2,200 pounds. Besides body weight, wood bison tend to have longer, punk-hair style down the forehead, while plains bison tend to have a large, afro-style hairdo. Wood bison have longer legs and are hairier than the plains bison. Lastly, the most noticeable difference is that plains bison have a large, rounded hump on their back above their front shoulders, while wood bison have a long, gradual hump then sharply drops down towards the neck.
The 20-Year Effort
The reintroduction was a group effort. Canadian wildlife agencies, the Alaska department of Fish and Game, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Alaska Native corporations all had to work together in order for this reintroduction to be successful. But this was no easy feat.
“It’s been a 20 year struggle with many challenges, some of them monumental, and we’ve overcome all of them”, said Tom Seaton, Wood Bison Project Biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
A lot of controversy and court cases took place to make it happen. Due to the Endangered Species Act of 1973, it makes it extremely difficult to reintroduce an endangered or threatened species. Landowners were hesitant to allow this to take place because they would have to compromise their economic activity such as oil and natural gas development and feared they would be responsible if anything happened to the herd.
As the years went on, court cases and legal issues kept pushing the reintroduction date back. One of the major deciding factors for where to place these bison in the wild had to do with oil drilling rights on both public and private land in Alaska. Companies did not want to worry about an endangered species being reintroduced and heavily protected on the lands that they wanted to develop. Finally, after years of back and forth in the courts, it was ruled that the wood bison would be released as a “nonessential experimental population” known as the “10(j)” rule in the Endangered Species Act which meant that among other things, critical habitat cant be set aside for wood bison. This was the happy medium that everyone agreed on to where the bison could be released, and resource developers could continue to do their jobs without fear of punishment if a bison was injured or killed. Also, hunting would eventually be allowed to happen on a sustainable basis. Finally, in 2015, the release happened and 100 bison were sent out to the wild to reproduce and eventually become a sustainable hunting and wildlife watching export for the state of Alaska.
Correcting a Wrong
Why bring wood bison back to Alaska? Well, as Mike Miller, founder and executive director of the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center said, “If they became extinct because of a man-made reason, and you have an opportunity to correct that and ensure that it never happens again- then that was the right decision.”
“I’m so grateful to the State of Alaska because they’re going back in history and correcting a wrong,” he added. “ It would be a good resource for the native people through subsistence, and through other people with hunting opportunities and also wildlife viewing and just knowing they exist is a benefit.”
Aside from subsistence hunting opportunities, it is projected that wildlife watching tourism will generate revenue for the small villages near the reintroduction area, like Shageluk. Ecologically speaking, wood bison fill an ecological niche that has been left unattended for over 100 years. The caribou in the area eat lichens in the higher elevations, while the moose browse woody vegetation like twigs and bark, as well as aquatic vegetation in marshy areas. Bison are grazers, and will take advantage of the lush grasses that grow in the low elevations.
AWCC is an animal rehabilitation and education center located in south-central Alaska. Mike Miller, who wanted people to get the chance to see Alaskan wildlife up close and in safe conditions, started it in 1993. Being that the AWCC is only an hour south of Anchorage and is located just off the Seward Highway, it is an ideal location to receive a lot of visitors. A drive down to some famous fishing towns on the Kenai Peninsula like Homer and Seward, takes one right by the Center, which receives on average around a quarter of a million visitors each year.
Every year, around a dozen college interns come to help teach animal behavior and natural history lessons to visitors of the AWCC. They at times have direct roles where they bottle feed moose, bison, musk ox, or wood bison calves or help mend fences, but for the most part they mainly educate visitors about the wood bison reintroduction program and the centers other captive wildlife. It was under this internship that I got to know the wood bison project and get involved hands-on. During my 14 months at the wildlife center in 2011-2012, I got to do some hands on work with the bison, as well as educational programs. I like the diversity and the feeling that I was helping with something much larger and longer lasting than myself.
Now, the wildlife center has 22 bison left in their care. The overwhelming majority has been sent out to the wild. Visitors still come to see the bison, even though they are no longer in their large herds as once before. But that’s a good thing, because that means that they are once again back out in the wild where they belong.