Wood bison stand in their new pasture at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center in Girdwood on Sunday, June 22, 2008. The state Department of Fish and Game has been working to re-introduce wood bison in Alaska for the past 15 years. The state last week imported 53 wood bison purchased from Elk Island National Park near Alberta, Canada, to compliment a herd of 33 wood bison already at the AWCC.
FAIRBANKS - The state Department of Fish and Game cleared a major hurdle in its 15-year-old effort to restore wood bison in the state when it trucked 53 of the beasts into Alaska from a national park in Canada last week.
The bison, which arrived June 19, are being held in pens at the Alaska Conservation Wildlife Center, a big game farm south of Anchorage, where they will remain under quarantine for at least two years to ensure they are disease free before being released into the wild.
"We got them into the state, which is a huge step," said Cathie Harms with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Fairbanks.
The first group of wood bison will be released in the Minto Flats northwest of Fairbanks in 2010, if all goes according to plan, said state wildlife biologist Bob Stephenson in Fairbanks, the man who has been ramrodding the bison restoration plan since the early 1990s. The 53 bison hauled in from Canada - 27 females and 26 males - join a herd of 33 wood bison that belong to AWCC owner Mike Miller and will be purchased by the state, giving the department 86 wood bison with which to work.
"That will be the feeding stock for whatever we do," Harms said.
The state acquired the bison, which range in age from 1 to almost 3 years old, from Elk Island National Park in Alberta, Canada, and used a $100,000 grant from the Turner Foundation to transport them to Alaska. The bison were hauled to Alaska in two special cattle trucks. The 2,000-mile trip took about 48 hours, said wildlife planner Randy Rogers, who along with Stephenson and regional fish and game director David James, met the bison convoy at the Alaska border.
"This is a major milestone in the project," Rogers said.
But until there are wood bison running wild in Alaska, the department won't consider the project a success.
"We're not in this for having bison in captivity," Rogers said.
Wood bison are the largest land mammals in North America, bigger than their Plains bison cousins that were introduced in Alaska in the 1920s and have established themselves in herds in three parts of the state. Bull wood bison can weigh as much as 2,000 pounds.
Based on interviews with Native elders on the Yukon Flats and radio carbon-dated specimens found around Alaska, wood bison roamed Alaska in large numbers as few as 200 years ago before becoming extinct about 100 years ago. The state has been working on a wood bison restoration plan since 1991, back when it was "just a notion," Stephenson said.
State wildlife biologists have identified three potential release sites for wood bison - Minto Flats just northwest of Fairbanks; the Yukon Flats 150 miles north of Fairbanks; and the Innoko Flats in western Interior.
The animals will almost surely be listed as an endangered species in Alaska - they are listed as threatened in Canada - when they are released, and it will take years for the herd to grow where it is big enough to be hunted, which is the ultimate goal, Rogers said.
The state conducted an environmental review to address potential impacts as a result of reintroducing wood bison to Alaska and began applying for permits to import wood bison from Canada more than a year ago. The state had to get a litany of permits from Canadian and U.S. agencies to bring the animals into Alaska, several of which pertained to the Endangered Species Act, Rogers said. The state plans to work with federal officials to get Alaska's wood bison population designated as "a non-essential, experimental population," according to Rogers. Doing so eliminates a requirement for designating critical habitat for a species, which is a major concern for industries interested in oil and gas development in both the Minto Flats and Yukon Flats, he said. The same regulation was used when wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park and Preserve in the 1990s, Rogers said.
A veterinarian from the U.S. Department of Agriculture was on hand to break special seals on the two trailers and certify each animal when the convoy arrived at the AWCC, Rogers said.
The bison were treated for parasites and inspected by a tick expert from the University of Calgary to ensure they were carrying no winter ticks. The animals were fed weed seed-free hay for several days before to make sure they were not carrying weed seeds in their digestive tracts, Rogers said.
The trucks the bison were hauled in were sterilized and steam cleaned before the bison were loaded, he said.
Even though the animals have been tested twice for tuberculosis and brucellosis and there has not been a case of tuberculosis or brucellosis in the Elk Island wood bison herd in 40 years, the animals will be held in captivity for at least two years, during which time they will be tested several more times before their release.
"If for some reason we get a positive test down the line and something major happens, we could potentially de-populate the entire herd," Rogers said.
The state could have attempted a reintroduction effort with the 33 wood bison that were already at the AWCC but they wanted a larger number of animals for "genetic diversity." The minimum number the state will release is 40, Stephenson said.
"More is better," he said.
The bison are being held in an approximately 50-acre area that is double fenced with an 8-foot-high game fence. The state veterinarian required two fences "so wild moose won't come up and kiss one of the bison," Miller said.
The new bison are being held separate from the herd that was already there, which came from a herd in Whitehorse, Yukon, that also was started with animals from Elk Island. There is no way the two herds can interact with each other or other animals.
The AWCC also is home to a herd of about 100 Plains bison, 25 elk and a handful of bears, moose, caribou and musk ox. Miller said the new batch of bison is being held separate from the ones that have been at the center since 2004, and were "still settling in" to their new home. The trip to Alaska took about 48 hours of almost continuous driving. Other than stops for fuel and meals, the only time the convoy stopped was to water the bison, which they did once in Canada and once in Tok, where they solicited help from the local volunteer fire department.
"We used a fire truck with a 2-inch capacity hose to fill water troughs inside the trailers," Rogers said. "They didn't drink much in Canada, but they were thirsty in Tok. We went around the trucks three or four times refilling those (troughs). Bison can drink a lot of water."
The trailers were equipped with mist sprayers to keep the bison cool, and each trailer had temperature and humidity censors that could be monitored by computer by someone in a support vehicle following the convoy.
Only one bison was injured during the trip - a bull that suffered a bruised shoulder was limping when it got off the truck, Rogers said, but appears to be doing fine now.
"There was concern about shipping animals 2,000 miles," he said. "There's definitely a chance for mortalities and having only one with a slight limp we're considering to be a major victory. They did amazingly well."
Most of the bison bolted off the trucks when they were opened, though a few had to be coaxed off the trucks, Rogers said.
"They went thundering off into the brush," he said. "The pen they're in has some pretty thick alders; they disappeared pretty quickly."