UAF students help wood bison return

Spencer Tordoff

Special to the Sun Star

Extinct in Alaska for the past 200 years, wood bison have made their triumphant return to the Lower Innoko/Yukon Rivers region with help from a diverse cast, including two UAF students. One hundred of the animals were released into the wild on April 3, after being flown to the village of Shageluk.

Freshman Luke Rogers and sophomore Gerrit Van Diest, both wildlife biology and conservation students at UAF, were given the chance to help with the wood bison restoration project at a crucial phase. Over spring break, the students assisted with loading the animals in specially designed shipping containers in Portage, Alaska for transport to their new home.

“I was very happy to contribute in the way that I did,” said Rogers, a lifelong Fairbanksan whose father was a lead planner on the project. “It was probably one of the most fulfilling things I’ve been a part of.”

Gerrtit Van Diest and Luke Rogers take a moment's break from helping assemble the chutes leading to the "bison boxes." Photo courtesy of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Gerrtit Van Diest and Luke Rogers take a moment’s break from helping assemble the chutes leading to the “bison boxes.” Photo courtesy of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Rogers was tasked with locking gates which kept the bison separate and secured in stalls in the “bison boxes,” a final step before the animals were transported. Van Diest, meanwhile, assisted with restraining the bison and performing a final health check before they were loaded.

“When you see them [restrained], sometimes they’re shaking their head around,” said Van Diest, who hails from Palmer. “They’re so strong, if you got hit by them, it would just wreck you.”

Wood bison are a subspecies of the lower 48’s iconic plains bison, and the varieties are similar in many respects; both are herd animals, both live in prairies or grasslands and both subsist primarily on grasses. Compared to their cousins outside, wood bison are adapted for life in the arctic, with woolier hair to survive winter temperatures, and larger neck muscles to help them scrape snow aside to find food. They’re also the biggest land animals in North America — large males can weigh in at more than 2,000 pounds.  It’s not precisely known why wood bison disappeared from Alaska around the late 1800s, but changes in habitat distribution, as well as the effects of hunting, are theorized to have contributed. The species’ absence was not only observed in the ecosystem, but noted by native cultures in the state.

“There are still oral histories from Athabascan elders that identify wood bison and describe how they were hunted and when they were seen,” said Cathie Harms, regional programs manager for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. “There are places, in the Athabascan language, that are named for bison.”

“Wood bison are the last species that we lost in the 1800s that can be brought back,” Harms said. “Everything else is either back, or it’s gone forever. So it’s pretty significant from an ecological standpoint.”

The reintroduction project was conceived in 1992, but faced numerous legal challenges and complications that slowed its progress, including a special rule that had to be added to the Endangered Species Act which allowed landowners to welcome the bison. The Lower Innoko/Yukon Rivers region was selected as the new home for the herd due to a combination of strong community support and excellent bison habitat in the area.

Working on the restoration project gave the students an idea of what conservation in the state can be like, as well as a once-in-a-lifetime chance to help bring a species back from extinction. For Rogers, it helped him confirm that he wants to stay in Alaska, and that he’d picked the right area of study.

“Since [the project] I’ve had no doubts at all that I want to be a wildlife biology major,” Rogers said. “The only thing now is I’m considering… do I want to be the researcher and the implementer, or the person who makes the calls and works on the law side of things? I do like the animals here a lot and I would like to work to keep them conserved.”

Van Diest also plans to stay in Alaska, and his first taste of conservation work left him hungry for more.

“It’d be amazing to work on something like that [again],” Van Diest said. “That’s what I’m most interested in, large mammals. I want to work with anything big pretty much.”

Now that the wood bison are finally in the wild, the herd will be closely monitored by ADF&G to determine where they roam and document how they thrive in their new habitat. Once the population is re-established, it will provide opportunities for hunting and viewing to people throughout the state. It’s also hoped that the bison will provide an economic boon for villages in the region, by allowing villagers to offer guided hunts, supplies and accommodations for visiting hunters and viewers.

As for the future of the bison, Van Diest expressed high hopes.

“I’d like to see them grow in numbers,” Van Diest said. “Eventually we could get them off the endangered species list and after that introduce them throughout Alaska. Honestly I think it would be awesome if 10 to 15 years down the road I could get a wood bison tag and go hunt one myself. That’s kind of my dream, just to get them back to a stable population.”

Spencer Tordoff, 28, is a journalism student at UAF. He is the son of Cathie Harms, regional programs manager for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, who is quoted in this story.

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