The Woodies Are Returnin’

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Wood bison to be returned to their ancient range in Alaska

More than a century after they were driven from the wild, wood bison, a close relative of plains bison and the largest mammal in North America, are set to make a comeback. If all goes according to plan, the first wood bison could be released into Alaska’s interior as early as 2012.

By Jordan Schaul

The Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center (AWCC) has partnered with the state of Alaska (Alaska Department of Fish & Game) and a wide variety of other conservation groups on a wood bison restoration project, and are preparing to reintroduce wood bison (Bison bison athabascae) to interior Alaska more than 100 years after their extirpation in the state.

wood bison photo 1.jpg

Wood bison, the largest mammal in North America. Click on photo to enlarge the image.

Photo by Doug Linstrand/courtesy of AWCC

This effort will not only increase the worldwide population of wood bison, but will be a significant event in northern ecosystem restoration efforts, resulting in the reestablishment of a keystone grazing herbivore to what were once natural-grazed ecological communities. Wood bison are a close relative of plains bison and are the largest land mammal in North America.

Wood bison are well-adapted to northern meadow and forest habitats. While they consume a variety of plants, the majority of their diet consists of grasses and sedges. Although changes in habitat distribution, which caused populations to become increasingly isolated, probably contributed to their demise, large amounts of suitable habitat are still available in interior Alaska.

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Comparison of wood bison with plains bison. Click on the chart to enlarge it.

Chart courtesy of AWCC

Unregulated hunting is considered a primary reason for their extirpation in Alaska and Yukon, and hunting associated with the westward expansion of European settlers and the fur trade caused a rapid decline and near extinction of the remaining populations in Canada during the 1800s.

Although plains bison were introduced in a few places in Alaska several decades ago, they are not a native subspecies. In addition to different herd social dynamics, several morphological features distinguish wood bison from plains bison.

Wood bison are currently listed as an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), but this status is likely to change. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) may designate wood bison as a nonessential experimental population under section 10(j) of the ESA, which would allow the state and federal governments greater flexibility in managing wood bison in Alaska.

USFWS is also completing a status review and may down list or delist wood bison, based on the substantial improvements in their status since they were listed as endangered about 40 years ago.

In hopes of promoting more sustainable free-ranging herds of wood bison, Canada’s National Recovery Plan (pdf), the IUCN/American Bison Specialist Group and a number of state and national conservation organizations in the U.S. recommend that wood bison be restored to one or more parts of their original range in Alaska.


Wood bison at Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center.

Photo by Doug Linstrand/courtesy of AWCC

Captive wildlife facilities like the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center play a critical role in facilitating restoration efforts which may be intended to augment wild populations deemed vulnerable to extinction because of a host of factors from over hunting to habitat loss to disease.

These wildlife centers also facilitate the reintroduction of a population like this stock of wood bison which will serve to reestablish the subspecies in part of its historic range. In some cases captive facilities serve not only to hold wild-caught individuals that will be later released into available habitat, but they serve as holding and breeding facilities to propagate new generations of offspring designated for release.

The AWWC received wild wood bison from the Yukon in 2003 and witnessed its first calving season in 2005.

At the AWCC we facilitate recovery through both translocation and reintroduction efforts while also contributing to conservation through formal and informal education of patrons. Visitors to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center get an opportunity to see a herd of wood bison up close in natural enclosures along with other native ungulates and carnivores, some of which are displayed in what are known as mixed species exhibits.

wood bison calves photo.JPG

Photo by Doug Linstrand/courtesy of AWCC

As I corralled and herded wood bison cows and calves for a health check with fellow staff from AWCC, in late June, I saw two of our coastal brown bears and a grizzly sow suddenly move out of the bush into a clearing along the perimeter of the bears’ 18-acre enclosure. All were following single file with the lead animal attaining bursts of high speed in the direction of the bison calf. It kind of gave me chills reminding me of why I always tried to be on the right side of the fence as a bear keeper.

Not only did this sudden moment demonstrate the deeply engrained predatory instinct of the brown bears, but it suggested how vulnerable these ungulate calves are once separated from their mothers, even if for just a brief period of time.

I looked at the calf in front of me. It was understandably nervous and truly hopeless. And I peered back at the bears watching me and this calf. You could see how the musculature of the huge carnivores standing 15-20 meters away permits them to attain short bursts of speed for taking down moose and caribou calves.

buffalo1.jpgOne day wood bison calves may again become a part of their prey base. I was just glad that I was in the pasture with the bison, as unhappy as they were to have me there.


Wood bison at Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center.

Photo by Doug Linstrand/courtesy of AWCC

Some facilities designate staff positions specifically for experts in restoration biology. Two of my esteemed colleagues at the world famous San Diego Zoo are leading authorities on captive management and species reintroduction programs.

Ron Swaisgood, the director of Applied Animal Ecology at the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research has led efforts to restore species such as California condors, San Clemente Island loggerhead shrikes, Caribbean rock iguanas, mountain yellow-legged frogs, giant pandas, several bear species, rhinoceroses, and Stephens’ kangaroo rats.

This past spring, Ron sent me his then recently published article addressing some of the critical preconditioning efforts captive wildlife facilities undertake to prepare animals for a life in the wild.

The article entitled “The conservation-welfare nexus in reintroduction programmes: a role for sensory ecology” was published in the May issue of journal Animal Welfare (Volume 19, Number 2) and reviews applied tools and new perspectives for restoration specialists and zoo animal care professionals. Upon preparing this article, Ron was unavailable to comment, but he will continue to be a resource for us as a reintroduction biologist.

Wood bison photo 4.JPG

Wood bison at Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center.

Photo by Doug Linstrand/courtesy of AWCC

As much as animals need to be able to cope with stressors at the point of release, we need to give them a jump start by make sure they are in good body condition. This starts with the husbandry experts like my employer, Mike Miller, the founder and executive director of the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. Despite my own background servicing beef and dairy cattle operations, and work with domestic breeds, as well as anoa and bantang in captivity, I defer to Mike who has 20 years of experience raising plains bison and woods bison, which are substantially larger than the wild bovids I mentioned.

There is some book knowledge involved, but the hands-on daily experience is invaluable to pre-conditioning/pre-release programs.

AWCC video about bison restoration program.

KTUU video about wood bison (March 18, 2009)

Another distinguished colleague from the San Diego Zoo would likely agree. I like to pick his brain for his husbandry expertise, but Carmi Penny, the director of collections husbandry science and curator of mammals at the San Diego Zoo is as much a husbandry specialist as a conservationist.

He was just as eager to get a progress report on our recovery efforts. The San Diego Zoo currently owns wood bison (currently on loan to another facility) and they have a vested interested in recovery efforts for this lesser known northern subspecies of bison.

Carmi asserts that “Zoos and related facilities have an opportunity to participate in ground-breaking conservation initiatives as the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center has with wood bison on this noteworthy restoration project.

“Zoos and aquariums and other captive wildlife facilities are equipped with unique animal care knowledge, training in preventive and clinical veterinary medicine and the management skills gained from working with small populations in restricted spaces to contribute to restoration biology programs for endangered species.

“Zoos can transfer their ‘zoo-biological’ science and broad animal management experience to assist in the breeding of new stock for release programs.”

Carmi added that “[Their] animal training staff can help in the conditioning of animals for successful release along with keepers, curators, veterinarians and in-house research ecologists and animal welfare specialists. Additionally, zoos can support restoration efforts by raising public awareness of the needs for functionally sound and ecologically biodiverse landscapes by sharing compelling stories with zoo visitors. They also help by providing financial as well as personnel resources for such conservation efforts when needed.”

“The extirpation of wood bison from Alaska removed the ecological functions performed by bison herds interacting with the Alaskan landscape.”

In an eloquent narrative he further described the ecological impact of wood bison: “The extirpation of wood bison from Alaska removed the ecological functions performed by bison herds interacting with the Alaskan landscape.

“The physical and mechanical impact of bison on landscape ecology is most significant. The tilling of the soil by the bison herds aided in fertilization of the earth, as the waste from these giants replenished vital ingredients for natural processes.

“Essentially the bison provided a tree sapling removal service that helped keep grasslands as grasslands. As they wallowed in the substrate the depressions created microhabitats for a variety of plant and animal species. And of course their grazing helped maintain healthy grassland diversity.

“In their absence, a functional grassland ecosystem balance reached over millennia of evolution and adaptation had been disrupted.”

If things go as planned for us, we will turn the wood bison, which have just been certified as disease free over to the Alaska Department of Fish & Game, which now owns the herd. They will release the bison into Alaska’s interior as early as 2012.

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Sites that are being considered for the release of wood bison in Alaska. Click on the map to enlarge the image.

Map courtesy of AWCC 

The program leaders include wildlife biologists Bob Stephenson and Randy Rogers. Their team has selected the Yukon Flats, Minto Flats and the Innoko/Yukon River area as the three sites that are being considered for the release of bison during the next several years as part of ADF&G’s reintroduction program.

The expansive interior of Alaska is an area bounded by the Alaska Range on the south and the Brooks Mountain Range on the north. This region also includes much of Alaska’s boreal forest ecosystem, which supports a variety of wildlife species, including moose, caribou and Dall sheep that are well-adapted to the long, cold winters of Alaska.


Jordan Schaul is a conservation biologist and a collection curator with the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. He received his PhD in conservation/veterinary preventive medicine from Ohio State University and a master’s degree in zoology. He is a fellow of the Conservation Science Institute, an affiliate of the Pew Fellowship Program in Marine Science. He is a council member (ex officio) of the International Association for Bear Research and Management (IBA), a member and coordinator for education and outreach for the Bear Specialist Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, an advisor to the Bear Taxon Advisory Group of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, correspondent editor and captive bear news correspondent for International Bear News, and member of the advisory council of the National Wildlife Humane Society, which promotes high standards for wild carnivore care and welfare among private sanctuaries in North America. He is the creator of the Zoo Peeps brand which hosts a blog for the global zoo and aquarium community and two wildlife conservation oriented radio programs. He enrolled in clinical degree programs in veterinary medicine and has been on leave to pursue interests in animal management/husbandry science and conservation education.

The views expressed in this article are those of Jordan Schaul or the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Society and not necessarily those of the National Geographic Society. Read more blog posts by Jordan Schaul.

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Elephant Trainers Have Nothing On Wood Bison Wranglers;)

By Mike Celizic contributor
updated 3/20/2009 9:18:25 AM ET

The idea at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center is for a group of wildlife biologists to prepare a herd of a rare subspecies of bison for introduction into the wild. But, as an arresting video that’s piling up hits on the Internet shows, it ended up working the other way.  

It happened in the blink of an eye. One moment, a big bull bison is being herded in an enclosure. The next, the bison lowers his shaggy head and bulls into Steve Mendive, hitting him in the hip and tossing the burly biologist through the air like a rag doll.  

Satisfied with the job it’s done, the bull circles away, rejoining the line of bison going for medical checkups while Mendive’s fellows hurry to his aid. Picking himself up somewhat gingerly, Mendive is heard on the video saying, “I think I’m going to have to go to the doctor.”  

‘A little brush’
That was Wednesday. On Friday, Mendive was grinning for a camera in Anchorage and telling TODAY’s Meredith Vieira and David Gregory that he was none the worse for wear.  

“I’m feeling really good,” he said cheerfully. “How are you guys back in New York?”  

He described his close encounter as, “just a little brush up against a big animal.”  

In this case, “big” was an understatement. At 2,400 pounds, the bull that charged Mendive is the dominant male among the 82 wood bison in the conservation center’s herd. Wood bison are a subspecies of the iconic plains bison that once roamed by the millions across the American frontier.  

Wood bison once inhabited the Canadian Yukon and Alaska before all but disappearing. They were formerly thought to be extinct, but a small herd of about 200 animals was discovered in Canada in the 1950s.  

Since then, biologists have succeeded in increasing that group’s number to several thousand animals. Last year, a small herd was transferred to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, where they are being prepared to be introduced into their ancestral habitat within the next year or two.  


Steve Mendive said that the bison that attacked him “was just kind of protecting his space.”

Part of the process is screening the animals for diseases that have beset the surviving population. That involves taking blood and fecal samples and checking them for injuries. That’s what the biologists were doing when the bull took exception to Mendive’s presence in the enclosure.  

‘BOB 34’
The animals are known to the biologists by numbers, and this one is No. 34. Appropriately enough, if the animal were a football player, that number would designate it as a running back.  

“I’ve become pretty fond of old 34,” Mendive told Vieira and Gregory. “I like to refer to him as BOB 34, or Big Old Bison 34. He was just kind of protecting his space there. He’s always been one of the standout bison of the project.”  

Mendive’s appearance on TODAY wrapped up a run of animal encounters on the show. A week earlier, there were stories about a New Zealand man who dived out of a helicopter to capture a half-ton marlin with his bare hands, and a group of spear fishermen who survived a two-hour, mano-a-mano battle with a tiger shark. The following week, the focus shifted to humans and their lion friends. All of the stories ended happily, with no injuries worse than Mendive’s bruised hip.  


Steve Mendive looks like a lumberjack, but he is a wildlife biologist with the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center.


The biologist, looking outdoorsy in a plaid shirt, took the incident in stride. The bison, Mendive said, was only doing his job of protecting his herd.  

Mendive talked enthusiastically about the project and the excitement of rebuilding the population of wood bison, which are the largest land animals in the Americas. The effort involves federal, state and provincial governments in the United States and Canada, conservation groups, hunting groups and the not-for-profit Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center.  

“This is one of those fantastic opportunities that only comes around once in a lifetime — that is to reintroduce what was thought be an extinct species,” Mendive said.  

© 2010 MSNBC Interactive.  Reprints


Schedule for Zoo Talkin’ Radio & Bears On The Air (August/Sept)

Visit website for more information:

Ady Gil [Conservationist, Affiliation: Sea Shepherd Conservation Society] [Monday, August 2, 2010; 10:00 PM EST] (Zoo Talkin’ Radio II)

 John Scott Foster, PhD [Executive Director, New York State Zoo] [Monday, August 9, 2010; 10:00 PM EST] (Zoo Talkin’ Radio II)

Robert Buchanan [President and CEO, Polar Bears International] [Monday, August 16, 2010; 10:00 PM EST] (Zoo Talkin’ Radio II- Bears On The Air) Robert Buchanan grew up on the north side of the Florida Everglades and at an early age came to understand how man could change the environment and the important need for stewardship. He did his undergraduate and graduate work at the University of South Florida while starting his marketing career with a major worldwide beverage company. His love and respect for Mother Nature deepened through his travels with wife Carolyn to the Arctic. It was during those repeat trips to the North that Robert discovered how his marketing and finance expertise could be of assistance to world-leading polar bear and Arctic researchers. In 1999, he was asked to create a development plan for the fledgling conservation group, Polar Bears Alive. After a year’s in-depth research, Polar Bears International (PBI) was born as an organization with a focus on polar bear research and proactive education on how to conserve the great white bears and their habitat. With that mission, PBI has attracted some of the world’s finest scientists, zoologists, land management professionals, eco-tour operators, educators, government agencies and other NGOs. Under Robert’s leadership, PBI has grown into an organization with an international scope, supporting projects throughout the circumpolar North and reaching audiences as far away as Japan and Australia with our conservation message. Funding provided by PBI helped support research that led to the listing of the polar bear as a threatened species by the U.S. government. PBI is so well-respected by scientists that it was one of just two conservation groups invited to the recent IUCN Polar Bear Specialist Group meeting. Most recently, thanks to the vision and leadership of both Robert and Carolyn, PBI signed an MOU with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums that will introduce educational materials about polar bear conservation and climate change into all AZA zoos. It also encourages the regular exchange of research between zoologists and scientists who study polar bears in the wild – the first time an agreement has been reached for this type of critical information-sharing. This biography was provided by PBI and was included in congratulatory remarks for Robert’s acceptance of the Chicago Zoological Society’s prestigious George B. Rabb Conservation Award.

Doug Hotle [Curator of Herpetology, Albuqurque Biological Park] [Monday, August 23, 2010; 10:00 PM EST] (Zoo Talkin’ Radio II)

Lucy Spelman, DVM, Dipl. ACZM [Distinguished Former Zoo Professional; Author] [Monday, September 6, 2010; 9:00 PM EST] (Zoo Talkin’ Radio II) Lucy’s Bio

Ben Kilham [Author; Featured Bear Biologist, National Geographic Explorer] [Monday, September 13, 2010; 10:00 PM EST] (Zoo Talkin’ Radio II- Bears On the Air) Ben’s Bio

 Shirley McGreal, PhD [Executive Director, IPPL] [TBA/ rescheduled PM EST] (Zoo Talkin’ Radio II)

 Scott Lope [Animal Planet’s Hero of the Year; Operations Dir., BCR] [TBA/rescheduled PM EST] (Zoo Talkin’ Radio II)