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Project to Return Wood Bison to Alaska Wilderness Makes Progress

By Jordan Schaul

Bison are symbolic of the American prairie and the wooded landscape and meadows of Canada’s boreal forest. But today they are no longer part of Alaska’s landscape.

As the largest terrestrial mammal in the Western Hemisphere, they are an iconic species, and their return to Alaska would be monumental.

I became involved with the wood bison project almost eight years after its inception, at least eight years since the translocated herd had been at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, and I feel honored just to be able to say that I knew them when.

Read my earlier blog post, Wood bison to be returned to their ancient range in Alaska.

Indeed, the “hefty one on the land” (an Athabascan reference to wood bison) became that much closer to returning to the interior of Alaska recently, as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service determined that reclassifying the species from Endangered to Threatened was warranted following a status review.

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Photos of wood bison at Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center courtesy of AWCC.

Based on scientific and commercial data, the Service recommended the status change which will make efforts to reintroduce the bison herd now managed at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center much more feasible.

Given constraints imposed by the heightened protection — in this case, the status of Endangered — the bison would not be candidates for reintroduction to the sites selected and deemed most appropriate for a soft release.

Fish and Wildlife spokesman Bruce Woods said the federal agency is working with the state to establish wood bison in Alaska as a non-essential population and to accommodate a spring/summer 2012 release date.

 

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Photo of Jordan Schaul at Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center courtesy of AWCC.

As I read the press release, I took pause at the extraordinary circumstances. The bison which graze on Alaska-grown forage, supplied by Alaskan farmers, not far from my office window in deep snow are well on their way to being returned to the landscape for which they have been absent for over a hundred years.

Not unlike the musk oxen which were also extirpated from Alaska, the wood bison serves as a keystone grazing herbivore. Musk ox were successfully reintroduced last century, and if things go as planned, bison may be part of epic conservation story for this century.

Mike Miller, the executive director of the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, is a visionary who sometimes speaks of this achievement with the bison as a matter of fact — a sentiment perhaps shared by the unassuming bison. Occasionally they may look up at you while grazing, but otherwise they go about their business, minding themselves, seemingly unaware of their significance to wildlife conservation.

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Jordan Schaul is a conservation biologist and a collection curator with the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. He received his PhD in conservation/veterinary preventive medicine from Ohio State University and a master’s degree in zoology. He is a council member (ex officio) of the International Association for Bear Research and Management (IBA), a member and coordinator for education and outreach for the Bear Specialist Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, an advisor to the Bear Taxon Advisory Group of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, correspondent editor and captive bear news correspondent for International Bear News, and member of the advisory council of the National Wildlife Humane Society, which promotes high standards for wild carnivore care and welfare among private sanctuaries in North America. He is the creator of the Zoo Peeps brand which hosts a blog for the global zoo and aquarium community and two wildlife conservation oriented radio programs. He enrolled in clinical degree programs in veterinary medicine and has been on leave to pursue interests in animal management/husbandry science and conservation education.

The views expressed in this article are those of Jordan Schaul and not necessarily those of the National Geographic Society. Read more blog posts by Jordan Schaul.

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