Monday, March 16, 2015

Wood bison prepare for move to western Alaska

If the weather cooperates, 100 wood bison from the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center south of Anchorage will be flown to a new home in remote Western Alaska by the end of the month.

Roughly 50 adult cows -- 25 of which are pregnant -- and 50 yearling wood bison will be loaded into an HC-130 cargo plane and flown to an area near the village of Shageluk in the last weeks of March, Alaska Department of Fish and Game Division of Wildlife Conservation regional program manager Cathie Harms said Friday.
Using the Lynden Air Cargo turboprop, flights could start on March 22 and possibly be completed by March 24. Ideally, there will be two flights a day, holding 14 to 30 bison, depending on the size of each of the animals, Harms said.

The plane will also carry one biologist or a veterinarian to watch over the animals during transport. Other Fish and Game workers will fly separately to Shageluk to help with the release.
In the week leading up to the wood bison departure, conservation center marketing director Scott Michaelis said, Fish and Game will send its wildlife transport “A team” to the center near the head of Turnagain Arm to prepare for the move.

Harms said this will be the last opportunity to give the wood bison vitamin supplements and teach the humans how to load and transport the bison, which can weigh anywhere from 1,000 to 2,600 pounds when full-grown.

The first step in moving the animals will be separating the designated wood bison from the herd, Harms said.

“They are herding animals. They don’t like to be alone,” Harms said. “You can’t just say, ‘OK, well, now it's your turn.'”

Once cut free from the herd, the wood bison will be loaded into what Harms described as a “modified Conex container.” Adults will be separated into stalls and calves will be in small groups inside stalls.
The container will then be loaded aboard the HC-130.

Once the animals arrive in Shageluk, the shipping containers will be moved by tractor about five miles to where the bison will be released into a temporary holding pen. There the animals will have time to adjust to their new surroundings and de-stress.

“If you just let them loose, they would scatter and there’d be no herd,” Harms said.

Eventually, the herd will be released from the holding pen and led by Fish and Game, using food drops, to sedge meadows along the Innoko River.

Moving the wood bison is bittersweet for Fish and Game, as well as for the conservation center. The move has been more than 20 years in the making as officials struggled over how to classify the transplant of animals that went extinct in Alaska in relatively recent times. 

Concerns arose among some that if the bison were considered a replacement for extinct animals, they might be classified as endangered species in Alaska, creating all sorts of management problems. So an agreement was worked out to stock the bison as part of an experimental transplant.

“The process has been very long,” Harms said. “It’s a really good feeling to know Alaska is going to have wood bison again.”

Fish and Game hopes to move an additional 20 bulls to the area this coming summer. The wildlife conservation center will have 10 bison left when the restoration project is complete.

(This article was written by Megan Edge, Alaska Dispatch News, originally published March 7, 2015 and reprinted with permission.)

Note: Hay grown at the Matanuska Experiment Farm has been feeding the wood bison since they arrived at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center.

Further reading:
Bison reintroduction on its way to reality, SNRE Science and News, Oct. 24, 2008, by Nancy Tarnai (interview with the late School of Natural Resources alumnus Randy Rogers who worked on the wood bison reintroduction project for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game for nearly two decades)

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