Legislature Honors Bison Biologist
- ADF&G Press Release

Sam Cotten, Commissioner
P.O. Box 115526
Juneau, Alaska 99811-5526

Press Release: April 16, 2015

Contact: Cathie Harms, (907) 459-7231

Legislature Honors Bison Biologist

Members of the 29th Alaska Legislature honored retired Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist Robert O. Stephenson last week with a citation recognizing Bob’s career achievements and his contribution to the restoration of wood bison to Alaska.

Stephenson is credited with conceiving, researching and moving the wood bison restoration program forward beginning in the early 1990’s. He retired from his permanent position with ADF&G in 2007, continued with the project on a non-permanent basis until 2012, and finally as a volunteer until late 2013.

ADF&G finally was able to release 100 wood bison into the wild in the Lower Innoko/Yukon Rivers area on April 3, 2015.

“I’m very happy that the Alaska Legislature gave credit where it is due,” said ADF&G Regional Supervisor David James. “For twenty years Bob was the lead biologist on this project. Without his efforts, we would not have wood bison in Alaska today.”

In the citation, Stephenson was noted as an excellent communicator and a pioneer in integrating traditional ecological knowledge with modern science for understanding wildlife ecology. As a graduate student at UAF, he researched arctic foxes on St. Lawrence Island, and later studied wolf ecology with Nunamiut wolf hunters from Anaktuvuk Pass. Stephenson became internationally recognized as an expert on wolf biology and management.

Later in his career Stephenson served as the Fort Yukon Area Biologist. In the early 1990’s he noted that wetland habitat the Yukon Flats contained sedge meadows perfectly suited for wood bison. Bob immersed himself in several different aspects of research about the animals. He learned of Canada’s efforts to reestablish wood bison in similar habitat and made important contacts in Canadian wildlife agencies. He discovered and helped document Athabascan oral histories which contained references to the “the hefty one among timber,” a literal translation of one of several Athabascan names for wood bison. Bob initiated an extensive effort to properly identify and carbon-date many wood bison skeletal remains from the Interior and other areas of Alaska that provided physical proof of the oral history references to wood bison.

Bob recognized many potential benefits of restoring wood bison in Alaska including restoring a grazing animal which had been missing from Alaska for over 100 years to the ecosystem; an additional food source for hunters; support of photography and other tourism-related economic activities; and the opportunity to help secure a more certain future for this northern subspecies of bison. As Stephenson’s wood bison expertise grew, he was invited to serve on the wood bison recovery team for Canada.

“There were enough setbacks during this project over the course of two decades to discourage anyone, but Bob continued to work to make wild, free-ranging wood bison a reality in Alaska,” James said. “Thanks to Bob and the rest of the ADF&G team, Alaskans can take satisfaction in knowing that animals that were once on the verge of extinction in North America are again part of the Alaskan landscape.”