Wood Bison Restoration in Alaska
Frequently Asked Questions
General Biology Questions
Where did wood bison come from?
Wood bison were originally in Alaska. They are the northern forest bison type.
Wood bison were captured from the wild in Canada in 1957 in Wood Buffalo National Park, then moved to Elk Island National Park in Alberta, and allowed to multiply. In 2008, 53 Elk Island bison were obtained by the State of Alaska. The US Fish and Wildlife Service confiscated 13 wood bison from a private rancher in 2003 that had illegally imported them to Alaska without the proper permits. Those bison also eventually became part of the reintroduction process, after rigorous disease testing. The illegally imported bison were descendants of stock that came from Elk Island National Park, the same herd that the bison imported in 2008 came from. The wood bison released in Alaska were all from Elk Island National Park, or descendants of those from Elk Island.
How old do bison get? What is the average size? How many are in a group?
Cows in captivity can live to 30 years of age. In the wild, cows live to about 20 and bulls live to about 15 years of age.
Adult cows weigh about 1,000 pounds, adult bulls about 2,000 pounds.
Cows and calves could be in groups of about 15–25. Bulls are usually in smaller groups away from cows, and older bulls are sometimes alone.
What do bison eat? How often do they eat?
Bison eat grasses and sedges.
The lower Innoko area has many large meadows with grasses and sedges that are good habitat for bison.
The habitat we studied the most is between 15 miles south of Holy Cross to 10 miles north of Anvik and Shageluk. This area contains high biomass and preferred species composition for wood bison when we compare it to ranges already occupied by wild bison in Canada. Vast areas of the same grass and sedge meadow habitat exist toward Galena and Bethel where there is more room for bison to expand.
Moose might feed every two hours, while bison might feed every eight hours. Bison groups typically move to feed different meadows daily, in a rotation.
How do they forage in deep snow? Will they survive winter?
Bison have big heads and a giant hump for neck muscle connections that are used to sweep the snow away from the foods they eat. Operating as a herd, bison help each other clear the snow. They also take advantage of windblown areas to find food. Bison survived the winter of 2015-2016 quite well, and are well adapted to harsh winter conditions.
Do they have calves every year? How often do they reproduce? How long do calves stay with cows?
Cows first have calves at three or four years old and usually have only one calf at a time, and usually calve two out of three years. They can produce 10–15 calves over their lifetime.
Bison breed late July and August and gestation usually takes nine and a half months. Calves are typically born between late April and early July.
Calves stay with their mother for about a year, and stay in the bigger social group of cows for two to three years. At three years of age, the females stay with a cow group and the males form small groups of their own.
Would bison and moose coexist or compete? Could they breed?
Bison cannot breed with moose, so hybrids are not possible.
We can look to Alaska’s existing plains bison herds for some answers. Plains bison have been in Alaska for 87 years. The areas of Alaska with the largest plains bison herds (Delta Junction and Farewell) have also been areas where moose have remained very abundant over the long term. This indicates that they do well together.
Canada’s wood bison herds also provide evidence to answer this question. A recent study of Canada’s wood bison populations showed no negative effects on moose or caribou after decades of living in the same areas.
One study in Canada has shown that bison can compete with Dall sheep for habitat in a unique place where bison and Dall sheep ranges overlap. We do not expect negative interactions between bison and other wildlife in the Innoko area. In fact, much evidence exists that suggests that wool shed by bison increases success of small birds and mammals that use the wool to line their nest. Research also shows that bison fecal patties support much insect larvae, which support birds and mammals that eat insects, which increases the food supply of small predators like fox and marten.
Are bison good swimmers?
Bison are good swimmers. Water seems to be a barrier to movement in some wood bison populations in Canada, but the lower Innoko/Yukon rivers herd seems to cross the Yukon and Innoko rivers at will. Like moose and caribou, bison can lose young animals during river crossings.
How do bison behave toward predators? How will they do against predators?
Bears and wolves will be the main predators on bison. In areas where bison have been restored after a long absence, it takes time for wolves and bears to figure out how to kill them. Unlike moose, bison are a herd animal and can defend themselves with numbers. Evidence from Canada and Alaska’s plains bison herds suggests it can take 20–30 years for wolves and bears to learn how to kill bison, but even then, the predation rate is quite low. Predation on bison is much greater in diseased herds like Wood Buffalo National Park and Yellowstone Park, as opposed to nondiseased herds elsewhere. A popular documentary from Wood Buffalo National Park shows some amazing views of wolves killing wood bison in a diseased herd.
Are there white bison?
White bison are extremely rare but occasionally do occur.
What is the difference between plains and wood bison?
Unlike many subspecies, wood bison can be differentiated from plains bison from quite a distance. Wood bison are about 10-15% bigger than plains bison with a steeper and higher hump, and generally have more hair than plains bison. Wood bison tend to have straighter hair between their horns and plains bison curlier. Wood bison tend to have smaller beards and chaps that plains bison, and a less defined division between the wooly hair of the shoulder and the shorter hair of the rump during summer season. Wood bison are adapted to the northern forest with features that help deal with deeper snow, colder weather, and smaller group size. Wood bison have less vocalization than plains bison, especially during the rut.
Do bison move around?
Wood bison like open meadows, and travel daily between a set of meadows that they consider home, rather than truly migrating. They can move larger distances seasonally to take advantage of forage that becomes available, like windblown areas in winter and dryer areas during breakup. The Delta Junction plains bison herd moves about 15 miles between calving grounds and winter feeding areas. Just one year after the release of the Lower Innoko/Yukon Rivers wood bison herd, it appears that one cow group is starting to develop a north and south seasonal movement that is about 15 miles distance. Two of the young cows released in 2015 traveled to points 150 miles from the release site.
Why did bison leave or go extinct in Alaska?
We do not know for sure. Evidence suggests that the size of grassland habitat may have shrunk and become patchy over time as forests invaded Alaska over the last 10,000 years. Once herds were isolated in smaller patches of habitat, it is reasonable that humans and extreme weather events could have wiped out local populations over time. There is evidence that when firearms arrived in Canada and Alaska, bison numbers declined very quickly.
When could they be hunted?
The more animals that are released initially the sooner hunting may be possible. From a biological perspective getting to 400–500 animals would give the herd a better chance for long-term survival and this could take 9–15 years. There may be surplus bulls available for hunting before the population reaches 400–500.
If you shoot a bison, does the herd protect it?
Bulls tend to wander off when an animal is shot, but cow groups sometimes investigate the dead animal before they move away.
What type of gun is needed to shoot a bison?
Bison are tough animals and a .30 caliber or larger rifle is needed with 200 grain or heavier bullets.
How do you care for the hide?
The hide needs to be cooled first because they are very thick and insulated, then salted or dried to get all the moisture out. Then the hides can be tanned.
When is it best to harvest bison?
Bison tend to have fat more consistently throughout the year than moose. Unlike moose bulls, which have no fat and reduced meat after the rut, bison bulls generally start winter in better condition. Bison are most often hunted fall through the winter, into spring.
Winter hunts are popular and allow easier transportation for hunters on snowmachines to access bison and for hunters to haul the meat home.
How do you hunt and cut up a bison? What can you eat of the bison?
Adult bison provide hundreds of pounds of meat, along with heart, tongue, and other organ meat.
It is easier when several people work together to hunt and cut up a bison. Later this year, in November, we will need to cull the bulls used for breeding in 2014 at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. We will invite some of the Innoko area hunters to help so that they can build experience with these big, unique animals.
Do they have diseases? Are they tested?
Like all wildlife species, bison can become ill from diseases. Some herds of bison in Canada have caught cattle diseases. The Alaska wood bison herd was obtained from a disease-free population and has been quarantined at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. The herd has been repeatedly tested for disease, and remains disease free.
Once in the wild, bison are pretty resilient and do not commonly get sick; they are more likely to die from environmental accidents and issues like falling through ice, floods, deep snow, or predation.
Will there be subsistence priority? Will permits be required to hunt?
It is too early to say. Resolving issues around harvest allocation is not needed before the animals are released, but it is assumed that there will be a fruitful discussion among all interest groups on this topic during the planning process. It is hoped that a diverse group of interests will work toward solutions where all parties can participate in hunting.
Is there a concern regarding inbreeding?
Inbreeding has not yet been a significant issue with bison, but we want to start the herd with as many animals as possible to give them the best chance we can.
How would flooding and deep snow affect bison?
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is concerned about floods, deep snow, and falling through the ice as accidents that could set back recovery efforts.
Starting with larger numbers of bison and having them released into the area that is usually above high water in spring will help.
Is this really a reintroduction in the Innoko if bison have been gone for so long? Is this a lie?
Bison specimens have been found to the west, south, and east of the Innoko, and near Anvik, indicating they were in the area. Oral history of bison extends as far west as Tanana and Galena. There are few mechanisms to expose bones on the lower Yukon and Innoko. Very few gravel bars exist in the lower Yukon and lower Innoko that might expose bison bones. Also, relatively little archaeological exploration or other excavation has been done in western Interior Alaska, which would expose more specimens. As a result, less is known about the length of time wood bison have been absent from western Interior Alaska.
In historic times, density of human populations was believed to be higher in western Interior Alaska than eastern Interior. This is presumed to be because of the influence of abundant freshwater fish and other marine food sources in the lower rivers and coastal areas. The higher human densities may have contributed to an earlier eradication of wood bison in western Alaska.
It is correct that it has been hundreds or maybe thousands of years since bison roamed in certain parts of western Alaska. However, when an animal is put back on a landscape where it once was, it is called a reintroduction rather than introduction.
What are the benefits of having bison near our community and back on the landscape?
Bison can provide an additional meat and cultural resource, something that many residents identified as an important supplement to fish resources.
In the short term, some local residents will be hired to help build fences for holding pens, prepare the release site, haul hay, and herd bison when needed.
Where, when, how many, and how will they be released?
We have learned a lot about restoring bison herds from Canada’s efforts. If bison calve in an area and have good habitat, they are more likely to remain in that area. We plan to release the bison into good habitat right before calving.
A minimum of 40 wood bison will be released, but our goal is to release 100 animals to give the population a better start.
In mid-October 2014, fences will be built near Shageluk and local community residents will be hired to assist in building the pens. Local folks will be hired again in spring 2015 for hauling hay and packing trails in March and April. (In the future, local residents may play a role as “bison guardians” looking out for the animals, and moving them if they become a nuisance around town or at the airport.)
Wood bison will be flown into Shageluk in spring 2015 (late March to mid-April) and placed in pens just off of the airport. After being flown in a C-130 cargo aircraft the animals need time to settle before being released free on the landscape. They will be monitored 24/7 while in the pens.
Initially they will be allowed to move from the pens to meadows between Shageluk and Anvik. Not long after we release them, breakup will happen and the Innoko River may swell over its banks and may become very wide. With the flooded Innoko to the east and the Yukon River to the west, water will also help to keep the bison where they are released.
How many bison do you want to have?
This depends on what people want. We need to work with many interest groups to decide how many bison we would like to have, whether we want the population to grow or stay at a certain number, and what risks we are willing to take in terms of planning for potential accidents like floods, deep snow, or losses through the ice. Listening to each other and working toward a common management plan will begin in fall 2014 involving representatives from all interest groups who are affected by or could influence bison conservation.
Who would come up with the management plan?
Wood bison are being reintroduced for all Alaskans so everybody interested in bison will be a part of the management planning process. The wood bison management plan will be developed by a diverse group of interested people who will work toward understanding and addressing the key issues through a consensus-driven process. That process will begin in fall 2014.
Living With Bison Questions
Will bison be in prime berry picking areas trampling berries?
Bison eat sedges and grasses, which are not normally found in berry picking areas.
Bison will find what they believe is their best habitat. There is no way of predicting exactly where they will go, but blueberry and cranberry areas hold very little bison food. You are much more likely to encounter a bear in a berry patch than a bison.
Will a bison attack people or be aggressive?
We can draw from our experience with Alaska plains bison, and from Canadian wood bison populations near people.
Bison do not commonly attack people. Like moose, bison want to move away or avoid people but, if cornered, could become aggressive. Unlike moose, old bison bulls are more likely to be aggressive than cows with calves.
According to Canadian wildlife managers of deer, elk, bison, and moose, moose give trail users the hardest time and are the most aggressive species. Bison will use trails to travel, but will typically move off a trail when approached by people.
In Elk Island National Park, they hold a big cross-country ski event every year where hundreds of folks ski through the bison area and there have been no reported issues.
The plains bison herd near Delta Junction, Alaska lives among 1,000 people in scattered homes in the area, and there have been no reported issues of bison being aggressive toward people in recent times.
Are bison endangered? Are you allowed to be close to them while hunting moose, etc.? Any restrictions?
Wood bison are listed as “threatened” on the endangered species list, but a federal 10(j) rule has been assigned to the species meaning that it is legal to do anything around them that is legal to do around other animals. There are no special restrictions relating to wood bison.
It is not legal to harass any wildlife by chasing or poaching the animal.
Are there educational programs about bison suitable for the school curriculum?
The Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center has developed a bison curriculum suitable for grades 7 and 8.
For more information, visit the Living with Wood Bison section.