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Wood bison baby boom rewarded with new room to roam on Alaska's Turnagain Arm

Sean Doogan
Wood bison at the Alaska WIldlife Conservation Center in Portage, some 60 miles south of Alaska's largest city. Fencing is being constructed around new land acquired by the center that will give the wood bison more room to graze. Loren Holmes photo

PORTAGE — A dozen pregnant wood bison trudge through mud and pasture to graze. The pasture is a product of fertile land, nestled at the end of Turnagain Arm, but the mud is created by the cows as they stomp their considerable weight into the soft ground.  

New grazing area awaits them across the Placer River, but it’s not ready yet. And that is why this year, the number of pregnant wood bison at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center is among the fewest  since the animals were first brought to Alaska 10 years ago.  But that is about to change.

Love will be in full bloom again this fall for the endangered wood bison at center. Blame the expected baby boom on extra land and a soon-to-be-built fence. The 2014 breeding blitz will be a milestone for the center, which started with 13 bison in 2003. Wood bison are the largest land mammals in North America, weighing up to a ton – about 15 percent more than their plains-dwelling cousins. Plains bison are common in Alaska, with thousands living in herds near Delta and along the Farewell Burn in Interior Alaska, where they are frequently seen by mushers in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.  

But wood bison went extinct in Alaska more than 120 years ago.  The Alaska Department of Fish and Game says the extinction is probably a result of habitat change and increasing hunting technology, including the proliferation of guns.

Bison herd numbers 130

After a successful breeding and acquisition program, as well as delays surrounding their planned reintroduction to the Alaska wilderness, the center is now stocked with 130 bison -- as many of the animals as it can handle on its 100 acres of bison enclosure.

“They need a lot of land because they are so heavy, and no matter what you do, they tramp down the ground until it’s basically mud” said Mike Miller, executive director of AWCC.  “We have to move them from one pasture to the next, allowing them to graze on new growth while we reseed the old area. And with as many animals as we now have, last year, we just ran out of room” Miller said.  

Bulls and cows are kept in separate pens throughout the year, and each fall the staff selects which ones to breed. In 2012, breeding was reduced to the minimum needed to keep the center’s wood bison population stable. Only 12 cows were bred last fall, and their calves are expected to be born during the next two weeks. By contrast, more than 30 have been reared each of the previous two years.

Where the buffalo roam

Last year, the U.S. Forest Service heard about the problem, and leased 165 acres of its land in Chugach National Forest to the center for a free, 15-year term. The land is across the Placer River from the center’s south side.  But as part of a tightly controlled breeding and reintroduction program, the animals had to be fenced in –protecting the bison from predators and possible contact with domestic animals.

“Building a fence strong enough to contain wood bison is very expensive,” Miller said.

Grants totaling $75,000 from Wells Fargo and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation will pay for the construction of the 3-mile fence to hem in the new area.  Metal piping, once used by ConocoPhillips Alaska to drill for oil on the North Slope has been cleaned and donated to be used as fence posts. The 30-foot lengths of steel pipe will be trucked free of charge from Deadhorse by Carlisle Trucking.  They will then be cut into posts by volunteers from the Anchorage Fire Department’s employee’s union, the International Association of Firefighters, Local 1264. “We calculate we will be making almost 1,400 to 1,500 cuts to finish the fence” said Steve Mendive, a firefighter/paramedic working at Anchorage Fire Station No. 4 on Tudor Road.  “Our firefighters skill set, in working with heavy equipment and cutting tools is invaluable, and we have quite a few firefighters who have experience working as pipefitters and iron workers,” Mendive said.  

STG Construction in Anchorage is donating the equipment and labor to drive the fence posts into the area’s silty mud. Hundreds of volunteers from Wells Fargo, the Safari Club, and the Tribal Community Civilian Corps will then raise the wire mesh and tie it to the posts.  

Wildlife Conservation Center staffers are busy clearing land to build the fence, and the project should be finished by the end of June.  Then the animals will be herded into the new area to graze.

New Alaska homes

Additional space will allow the center to continue expanding its herd to about 200 animals.  “That’s important,” says Miller, because in 2015, up to 40 of the wood bison should be moved to the Innoko National Wildlife Refuge, near Shageluk in Interior Alaska.

After that, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game will put bison in the Yukon Flats National Wildlife Refuge near Fort Yukon, and in the Minto area.  The move will be the culmination of a 30-year effort to return the bison to their Alaska range.  The last wild Alaska Wood bison was killed not far from the Yukon Flats area about 120 years ago.

“But a lot is riding on that first project, the one slated for Innoko. We are only two years away from the release date, so getting more land to have as large and healthy a herd as possible right now is crucial,” Miller said.

If you want to help, AWCC is still looking for volunteers to build the fence next month.  You can sign up at info@alaskawildlife.org.

Contact Sean Doogan at sean(at)alaskadispatch.com