Population survey shows that Alaska’s wood bison herd is healthy and growing

a wood bison calf
A wood bison calf in Alaska, June 17, 2007. (Creative Commons photo by pbarbosa)

It’s been another good year for Alaska’s wood bison herd. A recent population survey shows that the Lower Innoko and Yukon Rivers herd is healthy and growing.

The herd was started in 2015 with the transplant of 130 animals from Alberta, Canada. The bison suffered significant losses in 2018 and 2020 due to heavy snows, winter rains and late springs, but better weather over the last two years has seen a rebound with record and near-record calf production.

Department of Fish and Game wood bison biologist Tom Seaton says a Nov. 28 population survey reflects significant herd growth.

“The minimum count of bison out there was about 150, so the population grew about 45% in this last year, and about 19% of that was just from natural growth from having a good calf crop and really good survival of yearlings and adults,” he said.

Seaton says the other 26% of growth is from the introduction of 28 yearlings, again imported from Canada and barged out to the Lower Innoko River area this past summer. He says the young animals have the potential to accelerate herd growth.

“Once they get to the reproductive age classes, which is like 3 years old to 20 years old, they’ll be producing a lot of calves,” he said

The wood bison reintroduction project has been shepherded by Alaska Native groups, Fish and Game, the Bureau of Land Management and others. The goal is to reestablish the animals in Alaska, where they disappeared from the wild over a hundred years ago.

Seaton says if the Lower Innoko Yukon herd continues to grow, limited harvest could be allowed according to a directive from 30 different interest groups, which together manage the herd.

“When that three-year average growth shows enough that you can also harvest ten animals and have a similar amount of growth, then we’ll start to hunt,” he said. “And if there are good winters in the next five years, then it will probably happen in the next 5 years.”

Meanwhile, a second wood bison reintroduction project is being considered. Seaton says 10 bison at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Large Animal Research Station, another 30 at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, plus additional animals from Canada could seed a herd in the Eastern Interior.

“Some folks in the Upper Tanana have written the governor asking for wood bison there,” he said. “There’s also quite a bit of interest in the Lower Tanana. There’s some interest in the Yukon Flats.”

Seaton says planning meetings this winter will bring together interest groups to talk about a new reintroduction project.

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Dan Bross is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.

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