The first load of wood bison bulls has been successfully released into the wild in the Innoko River valley.
Late last month, 12 bulls traveled by barge in special air-conditioned containers from Nenana to the unloading site, several miles upriver from the village of Shageluk, where a group of cows and calves has been roaming since April.
Wood Bison Restoration Project Manager Tom Seaton with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game picked a release site where a group of bison cows had been browsing only a few days before. Workers cleared an alleyway through the riverside brush for the bison to move through, and then the bulls were free to disembark.
What happened next, according to Seaton, was not at all similar to the first release of bison in April, when the cows and calves stampeded out of their holding pen.
“They made about a 90-degree turn and walked off the barge onto the bank, and up that alleyway. They did it real nice and slow, they’d stop and look back every now and then. And we got to the very last one offloading from the barge, and for whatever reason he decided that he really didn’t want to come out. So we opened all of the doors and tried to give him a little stimulus to come out and he just said no. So we all went away and made everything as quiet as we could, and in about 20 minutes he just eased out on his own and did the same thing – walked down the alleyway and into the meadow.”
Aerial surveillance shortly after the release showed that a small group of bulls immediately honed in on the scent of the cows, while another chose to swim across the Innoko River in the opposite direction from the cows. Since then, satellite tracking collars show that at least a few bulls have reunited with the cows and calves, and there is no evidence that any bulls have died in the transition to the wild.
Another group of 18 bulls is scheduled to make a similar journey by barge beginning next week.
A small group of wood bison remains in captivity at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center in Portage, where the now-wild wood bison were raised.
Until this spring, wood bison had not roamed the wilds of Alaska for more than 100 years.