The public has one final chance to see a herd of 100 threatened Wood bison at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center before they are released in a historic effort to restore their numbers in Alaska. Wood bison, on of two subspecies of American bison (Plains bison are the other), and used to roam the meadowlands of the state before unregulated hunting and habitat distribution reduced their numbers. Still found in northwestern Canada, Wood bison have not called Alaska home for many years, until a cooperative effort by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center sought to establish a breeding program, with the intention of returning a sustainable herd to the lands their ancestors once roamed.
Yes, the Wood bison is decidedly less sexy than other Alaska wildlife like bears, wolves, or moose, but when one gets to know these tenacious herd animals, it becomes clear they are an important link in Alaska’s chain of existence. As with all animals at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, Wood bison habits and habitats are explained in detail, with ample opportunity to view these enormous creatures up close. And visitors will want to get close this weekend, because much of the herd will soon be on their way to the village of Shageluk, then the open range of the Innoko and Yukon River areas.
This is a big deal.
AWCC brought this herd from a mere 13 to more than 100 over the last several years, with careful attention to breeding, standards, and wellness of every single animal living on the grassy property at the end of Turnagain Arm. The reality of how something so powerful could ultimately end up with so fragile of an existence is evident as one stands at the entrance to a series of enclosures currently housing the herd. They stomp, they wallow, and push restlessly at each other in a very wild way, yet stop and wait as human caretakers roll by on a backhoe laden with winter hay. It’s going to be a balance, for sure, tending without coddling, these last few weeks, and it’s an opportunity not to be missed.
Only a few days remain for regular viewing of Wood bison and many other animals at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center; next week, a team of scientists, biologists, and animal transportation experts will arrive at the facility to begin making preparations for a hopeful departure date of March 22, 2015.
On that date, weather permitting, the animals will be broken into groups, crated in specially-designed containers, and trucked north to Anchorage, where flights will take them to Shageluk. Once on the ground, the herd will be acclimated as a group for several days until comfortable in the new surroundings. Then, the moment of release will occur.
Tails up, hooves pounding; from there, it’s all up to the bison.
VISITING AWCC THIS WEEKEND
Hours: 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (last entry at 5:30 p.m.)
Admission: $35/vehicle, or $12.50/adults, $9/age 4-12, $9/active military with ID, $9/over 65
Tips: Dress for weather, wind, and cold. Plan to walk the center grounds for best experience. Pack warm drinks or snacks. Strollers and packs recommended for little ones.
Animals: Wood bison, brown and black bears (up right now), elk, moose, porcupine, caribou, fox, eagles.
WOOD BISON FACTS (Bison bison athabascae)
Size: Six feet tall at the shoulder, 10 feet long, up to 2,000 pounds (males).
Features: “Beards” growing from chins, hump on top of shoulders, skinny rears and powerful front ends. Shaggy, heavy coats that shed in the summer months. Enormous heads with horns that “point” inward.
Lifespan: 20 years in the wild
Main predator: Wolves
Food: Bison are grazers, preferring grasses, sedges, and small shrub leaves, like willow.
Habitat: Prefer lake and river shorelines, meadows, and recent burns. Bison generally like a home range, but may have seasonal ranges, wandering between and resting until moving on to the next.