Location, location, location: Some bison are on the move

Spring is not the usual time to be thinking about hunting bison. However, a recent report of a half dozen buffalo on the Richardson Highway near Sourdough caught my attention. Where did these animals come from and why would they travel to that area?

First — there is no real telling why animals decide to pick up and change locations. There have been reports of red fox and lynx — animals normally associated with relatively small home ranges — traveling for many hundreds of miles. Bison in Alaska tend to make seasonal movements based on their food supply, but these movements are fairly predictable.

The largest herd of bison in the state, in the Delta Junction area, routinely travels from its winter range east of town to the summering area on the Delta River. The lack of snow this past winter allowed some of the bison to remain on the river flat and along the windblown ridges near Donnelly. The Copper River herd, which numbers about 150 animals, calls the Dadina River its home range. This herd normally stays put. I thought it unusual to hear of bison up by Sourdough.

That seems like a long way to travel — and it is, by highway — but it's only 50-60 miles if one goes straight across country; not much for a critter. Snow levels all over Alaska were light. That meant feed for grazing animals was easy to come by. Normal winter ranges were not nearly as restricted as in some years. There is no reason an adventuresome group of animals would not strike out on its own.

The wood bison, recently moved from the Portage holding facility, to the Yukon area near Shageluk, have stayed near the area of their release — except for two cows. These cows have moved a considerable distance. One has taken up residence near Galena and another has traveled to the Bethel area. According to McGrath biologist Josh Pierce, recently transplanted animals have had their world shaken up and it is not uncommon to see considerable movement.

The re­establishment of bison herds in Alaska has been an ongoing project of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The Delta bison were brought to Alaska from Montana in 1928. The U.S. bison population was in trouble at the time and wildlife managers were looking for locations that were suitable for buffalo and might be a bit more remote. The Delta herd, as well as the Farwell, Chitna and Copper River herds, are all plains bison. The grasslands below the Alaska Range glaciers are ideal bison habitat for these animals.

Today, a bit more is understood of bison sub­species, hence the re­introduction of wood bison in our state. Wood bison have a tendency to be more of a forest animal and prefer forests interspersed with meadows. The edges of swamps provide excellent feeding areas. The Innoko River region in western Alaska has considerable grassland area that is perfect habitat. It is likely that until quite recently wood bison lived naturally in that area.

Bison were the most common grazing animal in Alaska a few hundred years ago. The last of them were eliminated by humans in the early 1900s. It seems a likely hypothesis that the dramatic ice storms of the early 1800s, which decimated the Alaska moose population, also wiped out a large number of bison. Grazing animal populations have slow recovery times. They were likely easy prey to hunting pressures along the Yukon River in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The last anecdotal records indicate bison were still present as late as 1910 on the Yukon Flats and near the town of Eagle.

Low snowfall over the past decade and possibly into the future may again allow for expansion of Alaska bison. After all, they were the most numerous grazing animal in Alaska during years past. Moose are thought to be the premier Alaskan ungulate, but that is a quite recent phenomena.

Success of a prey population depends mainly on predation and the availability of feed. Extensive wildfires of the past few years create perfect grassland habitat for bison. If this trend continues, grasslands will continue to flourish. Additionally, bison are not as susceptible to predation as moose.

In any given moose population, 20 percent are taken by predators, leaving 5-10 percent available for harvest. In the bison population, these numbers are flip­flopped. That allows for a pretty fair harvest. The Delta herd is utilized at almost exactly that 20-percent harvest level and is able to maintain or even increase its numbers.

The recent buffalo sighting along the Richardson may be a one­time event or possibly an early indication of expansion of a range because of favorable conditions. In any event, I believe it a good thing to have bison again roaming Alaska. We may not see large numbers available for general harvest during the next several decades, but who knows? Our great­grandkids may be taking to the woods after bison in a general hunt.

John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Delta. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race.

John Schandelmeier

Outdoor opinion columnist John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest.