3 Yellowstone bison arrive at their new home near Old Harbor, Alaska

ABout a half dozen bison in a fence on dusty round and blue skies in the background
Bison in Montana. (Photo courtesy of the Old Harbor Alliance)

It was a journey that took three bison thousands of miles from a remote Montana Indian reservation. They traveled by land, by air, and then by sea to reach their new home near Old Harbor on Kodiak Island. They finally arrived late last week.

The buffalo left Montana for Alaska four days before they arrived — three hardy bulls, which weigh about a thousand pounds each. They had to be loaded in specially-built shipping containers and trucked to Seattle — then flown to Alaska on a FedEx plane, which landed in Anchorage. And from there, they were driven to Homer, where they set out for Kodiak Island on a 60-foot landing craft.

Their final destination: tiny Sitkalidak Island, right across from Old Harbor.

Melissa Berns-Svoboda stands in front of one of the shipping containers the bulls traveled in. She checked on them regularly throughout their journey to Alaska and said them seemed to handle the ride OK. (Photo courtesy of the Old Harbor Alliance)
Melissa Berns-Svoboda stands in front of one of the shipping containers the bulls traveled in. She checked on them regularly throughout their journey to Alaska and said they seemed to handle the ride OK. (Photo courtesy of the Old Harbor Alliance)

Melissa Berns-Svoboda manages the herd and kept a watchful eye on the bison from start to finish.

“There was really no signs of stress,” she said. “They clearly wanted to know, like, ‘What are we doing in this container?’”

Berns-Svoboda said they seemed to make the trip just fine.

“They were very calm, laying down and doing what they should have been doing, which was eating and drinking,” Berns-Svobda said.

These are bulls from Yellowstone National Park, brought to Alaska by the Old Harbor Alliance — a group which includes Old Harbor’s Alutiiq Tribe, its Native corporation, and other organizations.

They are to join a herd of about 70 animals, to help improve their health and genetic diversity. When the Sitkalidak herd had its DNA tested, traces of an aggressive gene were found. Three bulls in the current herd will be culled, to allow the new bulls to bring new blood to the group. Researchers say genetic diversity helps the herd adapt to changing conditions and improves survival.

Berns-Svoboda says the move from Montana probably cost about $9,000 per bull, but the money is an investment in Old Harbor’s future — because the buffalo will help feed the community, a place so isolated that groceries have to be flown in, which makes them expensive.

Some of the buffalo have already been harvested — and the meat shared in the community of about 200. One day, the Alliance would like to sell the meat, as well as hunting permits, to bring some income to this cash-poor community. The bulls are key to those dreams.

When the landing craft arrived on the shores of Sitkalidak Island, it dropped its bow and opened the containers. The bison were free to cross the deck and head down a ramp to the beach, but they had to be coaxed to get off the boat.

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But eventually, Berns-Svoboda says, they scrambled across a rocky beach, slippery with kelp, and headed right towards a valley, where their new herd was grazing.

“The valley was full of just green, green grasses,” Berns-Svoboda said. “There were alders. It was just beautiful.”

The bison will join a herd that was originally brought to Kodiak Island by a rancher, tired of losing his cattle to Kodiak brown bears. Their genetics have been traced to animals in Wyoming, so they are essentially kin the new bulls, but many generations removed.

The Old Harbor Alliance bought a small part of that herd three years ago — and so far, they’re holding their own against the bears.

“There is really no conflict. They were kind of doing their own thing. They have their own respective areas. It was really neat to see,” Berns-Svoboda said.

Sitkalidak Island, save for a cabin, is virtually uninhabited, so the bears and the buffalo have the island all to themselves. In the spring, they both enjoy eating the green shoots of plants, that in the summer turn the island to emerald green.

Fed Ex flew the specially-made shipping containers from Seattle to Anchorage. One bull road alone. Two others shared a container. (Photo courtesy of the Old Harbor Alliance)
Fed Ex flew the specially-made shipping containers from Seattle to Anchorage. One bull road alone. Two others shared a container. (Photo courtesy of the Old Harbor Alliance)

The InterTribal Buffalo Council helped Old Harbor move the bison from Montana to Seattle. Members from the Blackfeet Nation were hired to assist – and Berns-Svoboda says that created a special bond.

“We built relationships that are lifelong relationships,” she said. “We’re going to have them come down here. They’re going to help us work our animals, then help us get to know them.”

Berns-Svoboda says both the Blackfeet and the Old Harbor Alutiiq see the bison as more than just a source of food. She says the Blackfeet will also teach them how to fully appreciate the role the bison play in tribal culture — how they bring the community together through sharing. Berns-Svoboda says she has also seen how the buffalo can help bridge generation gaps and promote spiritual connectedness.

It took a web of connections from Montana to Alaska to bring the bison here. Some federal COVID-19 money to improve food security was used to pay for their trip. Many community organizations helped to make the move possible.

Lynell Bullshoe, a member of the Blackfeet Nation, had this post on the Sitkalidak Island Herd’s Facebook page, where you can also find short video clips of the bisons’ journey to Alaska.

“So very emotional watching them being loaded,” she wrote, “thinking of history being made and the people/generations that will be positively impacted by this.”

Lois J. Red Elk-Reed, a member of the Fort Peck Sioux, wrote, “What a journey for these Tatanka. There are telling us a story. They are educating us once again, and they will continue blessing us.”