Officials from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG) announced recently that biologists surveying wood bison in the Lower Yukon and Innoko area made an amazing discovery: the spotting of the first wild bred calf in over 100 years. Wood bison are among the largest terrestrial animals in North America, being both heavier and larger than its plains cousin. The subspecies is also marked by larger horns, thicker fur, and darker tones. However, seeing one in the wild would be a rare sight indeed, as only a few thousands exist on the continent. The subspecies was originally believed to be extinct in the early 1900s, until explorers discovered a small, isolated population in Alberta, Canada in 1957. From that original stock, the Canadian government managed to grow the population back to nearly 6,000 animals. In 2015, a herd of 100 wood bison were reintroduced into Alaska. Now, aerial surveys show that the first in what is hopefully a new generation of American wood bison.
“This monumental event is a milestone that marks the beginning of a viable, wild, and growing population of wood bison in Alaska, the only place in the United States where the species is currently found,” stated the ADFG. “The stock used to reintroduce wood bison to Alaska had been in captivity over many generations (since 1957) in order to save this unique northern subspecies from extinction. Some people had doubts that the bison would become wild again and prosper in their old homelands after such a long time behind fences with supplemental food, water, and shelter.”
Biologists monitoring the herd say it was not an easy process. During the crucial first few months after the reintroduction, a number of bison succumbed to living in the wild for the first time. Still, it was something that had been expected during the planning process, and the strongest, fittest bison were left to expand the herd. The ADFG expects about 30 calves this year, but only two have been spotted so far.
“Now, the bison fit for life in the wild remain, and robust young calves will soon increase the population of the 130 that were released. This week marks the dawn of an era: the era of WILD wood bison conservation in the USA, with Alaska at the helm.”
Populations of wood bison also exist in the Northwest Territories, Yukon, British Columbia, Alberta, and Manitoba. A small herd was also established in Russia as part of a cooperative conservation project. Anatomically, wood bison are very similar to the steppe bison that once roamed ancient Russia about 6,000 years ago.
Images courtesy the Alaska Department of Fish and Game