Sometime in the last few hundred years, the wood bison completely disappeared from the Alaskan wilderness. Next year, they're coming back.
Thanks to a recent decision from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, wood bison will return to a few western parts of the state starting in spring 2015, the Anchorage Daily News reports. The arrangement, which has been in the works for nearly a decade, is pending review from state lawyers, but conservation officials do not foresee any problems. Wood bison are designated as a "threatened" species in the United States, and establishing free-ranging herds in natural habitats promotes long-term survival.
Wood bison roamed the Yukon Territory, parts of Canada and Alaska for almost 10,000 years before the arrival of humans. The wood bison — not to be confused with its close relative, the plains bison — is the largest land mammal in North America, weighing in at nearly 2,000 pounds at adulthood.
During the 1800s, the wood bison population in Canada was estimated at 168,000. By the end of the century, only a few hundred remained. Diseases brought by humans befell them, and the sprawl of agriculture sapped their meadow habitat. Today, there are about 4,400 in Canada.
The bison scheduled for release into the wild next year, about 100 of them, will come from the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, which has been caring for a herd since 2003. The center recently welcomed five new baby bison, and expects the births of another 45 calves before the end of the season (watch the new arrivals graze here).
The chosen few will be transported from the center, located in the Anchorage community of Girdwood, to the Innoka area, about an hour-long flight to the northeast. The animals will be carried on custom trailers aboard C-130 aircraft, the same planes used to fly missions in wartime and to combat wildfires.
There's good news for wood bison in other parts of the world, too. Last month, seven female bison raised in captivity in the British Isles were released into a forest in Romania, where they once roamed years ago.