We initially could not find the newly-made, small road to the U.S. Forest Service property. We were traveling an hour or so from Anchorage, past the town of Girdwood, to Portage, at the head of Turnagain Arm, part of Cook Inlet. The actual town of Portage was wiped off the map during a massive tsunami surge that took place during the 9.4 magnitude earthquake in 1964. Today, stands of salt-infused silvery weathered trees remain in areas along the coast, frozen in time from that massive and earth-changing event.
We met other hardy Alaskan volunteers and staff from the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center (AWCC), which occupies the once coastal town of Portage. AWCC is dedicated to Alaska’s wildlife through conservation, education and quality animal care. We came to help erect miles of fencing to provide new pasture areas for wood bison. Wood bison are the northern cousin of the Plains bison that roam the lower 48 states. They are bigger than the Plains bison; a mature bull can weigh 2,250 pounds, versus 1,900 pounds for the smaller Plains bison. Wood bison are in fact the largest land animal found in North America. Wood bison were previously listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), and as of last year are listed as threatened.
Wood bison were extirpated in Alaska more than 100 years ago. Thanks to many years and dedicated efforts of the AWCC, the State of Alaska and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, along with various organizations and volunteers, wood bison have returned to Alaska. In 2003, thirteen wood bison were brought to AWCC from a disease-free herd in the Yukon Territory in Canada. These animals are part of a wood bison recovery program designed to reintroduce the species to Alaska.
AWCC is home to the only wood bison herd in the United States. In 2005, the first wood bison calves were born at the AWCC. Now at 130 animals, the herd has outgrown their pasture, which brings us back to my trip – to volunteer to install wood bison-proof fencing on a U.S. Forest Service-loaned property adjacent to the AWCC facility. Once completed, the fence would enclose 165 acres of wood bison habitat.
My husband Ian and I donned our sturdy Alaskan-style rubber work boots and work gloves and joined one of two work parties. Ian and other volunteers rode 4-wheelers through a muddy trail cut into the coastal brush to one end of the property to install large sections of retired drilling pipes, which companies had donated to the project. These form the fence line. I worked with other volunteers to unravel and attach giant rolls of 8-foot-high fence wire to already-installed pipes. The construction might seem like overkill, but keep in mind, we were building this fence to last 15 to 30 years, and to withstand the activities of these massive wood bison. As the sun finally rose over the Chugach Mountains, we enjoyed the sunshine and worked steadily through the rest of the day.
The plan is to move the male wood bison to the new enclosure in January 2014. They will be the trailblazers for the other wood bison that will join them in the near future. We left the property feeling the good kind of tired you experience when you volunteer doing outdoor work. We drove back to Anchorage covered with mud and eagerly await the call in January to help the staff and volunteers at the AWCC move the wood bison bulls to their new home. In 2015, the partners in this historic reintroduction effort will release the first animals of this growing herd back into the wild places of central Alaska. This will be followed with two more planned releases in years to follow. It will be a great day to actually see an iconic species we all thought was gone forever back roaming the Alaskan lands they called home over 100 years ago.
Karla Dutton is the Director of Defenders’ Alaska Program
For more information, or to keep up on the progress of the wood bison reintroduction, here are some additional resources:
- Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center (AWCC) is a non-profit organization that provides refuge for orphaned, injured and ill animals; cares for animals that cannot survive on their own in the wild; and educates visitors about Alaska’s wildlife. AWCC is teaming up with Bear Trust International and Inspired Classroom to develop science-based education programs rooted in wood bison research and ecology. What better way to celebrate the upcoming return of this magnificent species back into the wild?
- Wood Bison and the US Fish & Wildlife Service