The story behind the return of the wood bison

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s reintroduction of wood bison to the Lower Innoko/Yukon Rivers area has made the news lately. It’s truly remarkable that 100 of the Western Hemisphere’s largest species of land mammal were safely transported by land and air more than 300 miles within three days, and just 10 days later, were released to thousands of acres of prime habitat. It’s a pleasure to congratulate past and present ADF&G staff members Bob Stephenson (who conceived the project in 1992 and spent decades developing it), David James (regional supervisor who kept the project alive for 19 years), the late Randy Rogers (lead planner for many years), Rita St. Louis (lead planner following Randy’s retirement), and Tom Seaton (project leader who logistically made the transport and release happen) along with dozens of other ADF&G staff who contributed to the success so far.

 

But the story deserves much more than an acknowledgement of a select few. ADF&G needed a partner to help with caring for the founding population of wood bison. Without the foresight and tenacity of Mike Miller and the staff of the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center (AWCC) in Portage, we would not have the healthy, fit animals that were released. Mike and his staff have cared for wood bison obtained for this project since 2003, and their knowledge and experience made it possible to safely load them on a very tight schedule.

Individuals, professionals, nonprofit organizations, businesses, and government agencies have contributed millions to this project. Here are a few examples:

• Carlile Trucking donated the cost of every delivery of hay for the bison to eat since 2003, totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years.

• Safari Club International Foundation’s donations were in six figures, and the last donation, when combined with additional funds from Bass Pro Shops and matched by dollars from the Pittman-Robertson Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration, allowed ADF&G to reintroduce 100 wood bison instead of 40 as previously planned.

• Lynden Air Transport discounted its transportation fees by more than six figures because it supported the project.

• The Turner Foundation provided funding to obtain and transport 53 bison from Elk Island National Park, Canada in 2008.

And the list goes on. Funding or other donations and discounts to help manage the bison at AWCC before release were contributed by Totem Ocean Trailer Express, Wells Fargo, Conoco Phillips, Teck Cominco Alaska, Home Depot, Camai Printing, Granite Construction, Alyeska, John Deere, the Rasmuson Foundation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service State Wildlife Grant Program. Steel Fab donated most of the work to change normal shipping containers into the highly specialized “bison boxes” used to transport the bison from Portage to Shageluk. Sourdough Express, Alaska Marine Lines and Container Specialties of Alaska contributed shipping containers. Independent Lift Truck LLC provided the use of a huge forklift to load the bison boxes onto a truck. Pope & Young and Cabela’s donated much needed funds, and Alaska Tent and Tarp and Alaska Mining and Diving furnished, loaned and/or discounted equipment used during the release.

Let’s not forget the agencies that worked with ADF&G and AWCC to help make this project a reality. The University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Natural Resources and Agriculture Science donated feed and silos. USFS Chugach National Forest awarded a lease of additional pastureland to AWCC. Natural Resource Conservation Service provided fencing. The project received support and advice from professionals with the Anchorage Soil and Water Conservation District; Canada’s Wood Bison Recovery Team and Elk Island National Park; several divisions of the U.S. Department of Agriculture including Wildlife Services Alaska District, National Wildlife Disease Program, Agricultural Research Service, and International Services; U.S. Army Cold Regions Test Center; U.S. Army Fort Greely Command & Directorate of Public Works; and the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation State Veterinarian office. And the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service published the special rule under Section 10(j) of the Endangered Species Act which allowed landowners to welcome the bison to their new home.

People from the villages of Grayling, Anvik, Shageluk and Holy Cross helped build temporary pens, assisted with the offloading, and helped to develop the wood bison management plan with a total of 28 organizations from Anchorage and Fairbanks, advisory committees, regional advisory councils, village corporations, and sportsmen’s organizations. The Alaska Board of Game and the Federal Subsistence Board endorsed the management plan. Boy Scouts, Challenge Alaska, Salmonberry Tours, firemen from Anchorage and Girdwood, and members of Defenders of Wildlife donated labor.

This is by no means a complete list of sponsors, contributors, donors and supporters for this epic project. When the dust settles and all things are considered, scores of Alaskans are due credit. Wood bison have returned to Alaska and truly belong to all of the people of this state. I’m proud of the effort that brought this resource back, and am happy to congratulate all Alaskans on a job well done. Thanks to your efforts, magnificent wood bison are once again ranging free in the meadows and woodlands of the Lower Innoko/Yukon Rivers.

• Sam Cotten is the Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

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