Three years ago, SCI Foundation helped the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Division of Wildlife Conservation release 130 wood bison back into the lower Innoko/Yukon River area of Alaska. The project’s goal was to reintroduce to the wild a species that had been lost over a century ago through changing ecological factors, unregulated hunting and a later mixing with plains bison. Shortly after being released, the first wild bred, wild-born wood bison calf was born in the United States in over 100 years. Now, having survived their third hard winter, the wood bison are thriving with new calves continuing to be born into the growing herd.
Although loss from harsh winters and predation by wolves have caused losses in the herd over the past year, preliminary findings from this year’s survey suggest that herd numbers are up and expected to continue climbing. A survey of this year’s calving and breeding seasons is currently underway and the results will be shared as they become available. During the Spring of 2017, 25 calves were born to the herd with 16 and 17 born in 2015 and 2016 respectively. Once the herd size reaches a sustainable population and birth-rate level, limited harvest permits will be issued.
Once hunting begins, a percentage of the permits will be issued to the four surrounding villages for subsistence hunting (each bison yields more than 500 pounds of edible meat) with the remaining being offered by drawing to Alaskan residents and a small number of permits (10%) being offered to non-residents. The best available science-based management practices will be used to ensure that offtakes are sustainable and the herd numbers are encouraged to continue to grow. As the population grows, they will again become a valuable and renewable resource for Alaskans and visitors alike.
For now, scientists continue to monitor and study the herd, keeping careful count of the animals and tracking their movements. Currently, ADF&G maintains about 30 radio collars on the wood bison. These collars are used to track movement and herd patterns. So far, most of the bison have remained within a 50-mile area of their initial release location, but some young adults have travel as far north as the upper Noatak drainage and as far south as the mouth of the Kuskokwim River increasing their future range and potential impact.
In addition to the value provided by the bison themselves, reintroduction of this keystone species provides collateral benefits that impacts many other species as well as the habitat itself. Bison grazing manipulates the physical environment and helps provide better forage for animals like ground squirrels, shrews, and grasshoppers while their wallows and feces provide rich nutrients to soils, promoting plant growth. Competition between the bison and other species including moose and caribou is low since they do not rely on the same resources. Their renewed presence proves to have many positive benefits for all involved, including the bison themselves, habitat and local peoples, as well as providing opportunities for future hunting and tourism.
SCI Foundation and others involved with the release hope to see the bison continue to do well. Providing support for science-based conservation projects like this one is one of SCIF’s primary mission objectives, ensuring that we continue to be “First for Wildlife.” To learn more this and other species restoration projects conducted by SCIF, visit SafariClubFoundation.org.