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Episode 33: Frontiers follow-up, wood bison adapt to new home

By KTVA Alaska 12:46 PM December 12, 2015

Earlier this year on Frontiers, we followed the journey of about 100 wood bison, which were raised at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center in Portage, then flown to their new home near Shageluk, a community about 300 miles west of Anchorage.

The wood bison are cousins to the iconic plains bison, but bigger. In fact, they can reach more than 2,000 pounds and are considered the largest animal in North America. But the wood bison were overhunted in the 1800s and disappeared about a century ago from their historic range in Alaska.

After a small herd of wood bison was found in Canada in the 1950s, biologists at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game began looking for ways to import them and reestablish herds in Alaska.

They probably had no idea what kind of logistics would be required to restore this missing piece of the ecosystem. It would take decades to realize their dream.

This spring, the first group of bison, made up of females, calves and smaller males, was flown on a C-130 Hercules to Shageluk in specially made containers. Later this summer, a second group of 30, larger and heavier bulls was trucked about 300 miles in air-conditioned freight containers to Nenana, then shipped by barge another 700 miles across the Tanana, Yukon and Innoko rivers.

Joining us this week to give as update on how the bison are adapting to their new home is Tom Seaton, ADFG’s Wood Bison Project manager and Cathie Harms, a regional programs manager.

What is especially exciting to hear them talk about is the kind of thinking that went into this project. Since something like this had never been done before, Seaton and his colleagues had to plan for every contingency. What if a wildfire blocked the bulls being trucked up the Parks Highway to Nenana? What if the weather was too hot for the bulls and caused them to suffocate?

No detail was left to chance. The first group’s arrival, which included pregnant cows, was timed, so they could give birth to their calves in the wild.

There have been a few casualties since the bison arrived in their new homeland. A few have drowned. Several others succumbed to the stress of being moved. But the great experiment goes on — and we’re excited to bring you the latest developments on what could turn out to be one of the greatest conservation success stories of the century.

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