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More Wood Bison Headed for Innoko River Region

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Alaska Department of Fish and Game
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Young Wood Bison that are being transported to join a herd seeded along the Innoko River in 2015.

A group of young Wood Bison are being transported to the Lower Innoko River region in Western Alaska. It’s the latest step in a decade’s long effort by state and federal agencies and Alaska Native groups to re-establish the animals in Alaska.

The 28 yearling Wood Bison are part of a group form Alberta’s Elk Island National Park that were trucked to Fairbanks in April. Alaska Department of Fish and Game Wood Bison biologist Tom Seaton says the animals spent the last 3 months at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Large Animal Research Station.

“When we first got ‘em, they were just kind of bony calves, that had just been weaned, and we wanted to get their body condition up, so we got ‘em on some really good hay from Delta Junction and supplementing them with alfalfa pellets to try to improve their protein so they can gain some muscle mass, and they did. They did really well, as grass greened up here in Fairbanks, which this summer was a great growing summer, and you can really see it in the bison, some gained as much as 200 pounds since April, and it’s pretty amazing.”            

The evenly mixed female and male Wood Bison are destined to join a herd seeded by animals transplanted from Canada to the Innoko River region in Western Alaska in 2015. Seaton says the young bison were separated into 4 groups of 7 in preparation for this week’s trip.

“And they’ve had sometime to develop their social relationships in those groups of 7, which isimportant because you don’t want certain individuals in a container working out their dominance hierarchy when they’re being transported.”   

The Wood Bison are travelling in 4 customized steel shipping containers, which longtime project partner Carlile Transportation trucked from Fairbanks to Nenana Wednesday.

“This is just one of the coolest projects.”

Carlisle Transportation senior account executive Eleanor Harrington says the company provides the service for a nominal fee because it supports the Wood Bison project.

“Be able to reintroduce bison into the wild, right? My background is in animals, so I’m personally very invested in this.”   

From Nenana, it’s a 3-to-4-day barge voyage along the Tanana, Yukon and Innoko Rivers to a pre-staged release site on the Innoko. Seaton says 2 biologists are accompanying the Wood Bison on the river trip, during which over heating is the biggest concern. A video of one of the previous trips was produced for the Department of Fish and Game:

“They take shifts and monitor them 24 hours aday and there’s air conditioning units on there, and temperature and humidity sensors.”

Seaton says the journey is stressful for the Wood Bison which will be released into a large, fenced area to adjust to their new environment. He says the enclosure was constructed by Holy
Cross and Shageluk residents at a site along the Innoko River in an area where the existing Wood Bison herd of around 130 animals gathers for the rut this time of year.

“We need to connect them with the wild bison so they can join that social group and learn about where to eat and where to go, and what to do and all that from the wild bison, and so if we can get the bison settled, and then the wild bison show up, then we’ll turn ‘em out.”

Seaton emphasizes that bison are very good at finding other bison.

“Young bison want to be with adult cows and adult cows want to keep young bison with them, and so even for young bison that they don’t know, there’s an attraction there, a magnetism there that will work in our favor.”  

Seaton says a grant from federal agency partner: the Bureau of Land Management is covering the 3 hundred-thousand-dollar cost of this latest phase of the Wood Bison reintroduction project. He says another 11 bison from the same group of yearlings brought from Canada in April are remaining behind in Fairbanks because they are still a little too small to be
released into the wild. He says that group will likely join the others along the Innoko River next summer.