First winter in the wild looms for re-introduced wood bison

The Innoko Flats wood bison herd is going into its first winter in the wild.

Wood Bison in Portage game facility. Credit: Alaska Department of Fish and Game
Wood Bison in Portage game facility.
Credit: Alaska Department of Fish and Game

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game transported 130 wood bison to Shageluk by air and barge earlier this year, in an effort to reintroduce the species to Alaska.

Fish and Game Wood Bison Project Leader Tom Seaton reports that the vast majority of the herd is staying close to where they were originally released.

“As of Friday, there was a group about 10 miles north of Shageluk and another group about 10 miles south of Shageluk. And then there are two more groups kind of spread out between Holy Cross and Shageluk, so kind of a north-south transect through that whole flats area.”

Nevertheless, some brave bison have broken away from the herd to scout out new habitat. A young bull was sighted close to Galena in September – more than 150 miles from the release site. And a lone cow ventured down to the Kuskokwim River and back – a round trip of almost 180 miles.

Overall, Seaton feels like the bison reintroduction has gone very well, with a normal rate of mortality. But the real test of their survivability is coming up.

“Really, winter is going to be the true test. Especially late winter deep snows. If we could avoid late winter deep snows just with luck we are going to go through the winter pretty well. If we get really deep snows late this winter when the bison are still learning their habitat, I think we could have some difficulty.”

Deep snow would make it harder for the bison to get to the grasses and plants that they need to eat all winter long.

There has been no evidence of bison deaths by predation or disease thus far.

Based on experiences with reintroducing wood bison elsewhere, Seaton predicts that it will take predators such as wolves and bears a few more years to figure out how to take down a bison, and already he has seen bison and bears grazing in close proximity without incident.

The wood bison are being monitored by airplane on a regular basis, and a few bison were fitted with satellite trackers that allow biologists to record their movement by computer.

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