North America’s Largest Land Mammal Is Coming Back to the United States

Welcome home, wood bison.

National Journal
Marina Koren
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Marina Koren
May 13, 2014, 11:28 a.m.

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.

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