Just days after seven European ‘wood’ bison or wisent (Bison bonasus) cows born and raised at the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland’s Highland Wildlife Park were soft released into the Vanatori Neamt Nature Park in Romania as part of the largest wisent reintroduction effort in history, the United States moved forward on it own plans to reintroduce bison to parts of their historic range.
Alaska, which comprises the historic U.S. range of the once endangered wood bison, is preparing for a big comeback of bovine proportions.
The wisent was listed as Endangered in 1996, and it has since been downgraded to Vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) with approximately 3,000 animals in the wild. American wood bison are listed in Appendix II of the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species. Both North American bison subspecies are listed as Near Threatened (IUCN 2008).
Several successful reintroductions of wisent have already occurred in other European countries and American wood bison (Bison bison athabascae) were introduced outside of North America (i.e. Yakutsk, Siberia) in 2006 through a cooperative agreement among Russia, Canada and Alaska. Plains bison (Bison bison bison) have been reintroduced to the Canadian plains, but inbreeding with wood bison has compromised some conservation efforts for American bison.
According to Alaska’s Daily News-Miner (Fairbanks), ”If all goes according to plan, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game could release wood bison in the lower Innoko River in Southwest Alaska as early as next spring,” Doug Vincent-Lang, director of the Division of Wildlife Conservation, said on Tuesday. “This is because the USFWS just announced that it will publish the 10j rule that designates the wood bison herd a “non-essential experimental population,” which in essence makes the animals exempt from the Endangered Species Act. This designation “gives the state primary management authority of the animals.”
With this news the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center in Portage, Alaska learned that they can essentially move forward in making plans to fly out individuals from their 130-plus head of wood bison in the relatively near future. The U.S. wood bison reintroduction program has been a joint effort between the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the 200 acre game animal sanctuary, which is home to other native ungulate and carnivore species from moose to grizzly bears. Several political hurdles have extended the effort over a decade, but the news is no less exciting for the managers of the only sustainable captive herd of wood bison in the U.S.
The wood bison, a subspecies or sometimes considered an ecotype of the American bison (Bison bison spp.), was extirpated in Alaska and hence, is deemed functionally extinct in the United States. However, with this announcement by the USFWS, the wood bison should be restored to its ancient range outside of Canada where it has continued to persist in the wild in recent history.
Wood bison are the largest land mammals in North America and, in fact, the Western Hemisphere. Similarly, the slightly smaller wisent are the largest terrestrial mammals in Europe. Unlike the European bison, which was actually rendered globally extinct due to hunting and habitat loss, the wood bison, as mentioned, has survived in the Canadian portion of its historic range. American bison are more docile (i.e. easier to tame) and easier to outbreed with domestic bovids.
There are 7,000 free ranging wood bison in Canada, although hybridization with the nominate subspecies, the plains bison (Bison bison bison) of the lower 48, has been demonstrated in some populations. This conservation effort for wood bison will not only increase the genetic diversity of the global population of the subspecies, but it will increase their numbers in the wild.
To accommodate and manage wood bison, a specially designed handling facility was built on the campus of the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. Specially designed trailers will be used to transport the animals on the first part of their journey to soft-release sites in Alaska’s Interior.