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Schools stimulate wood bison awareness through reengineering skeletal structure

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  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published May 15, 2014

Students raise their wood bison awareness through reengineering the skeletal structure

By Anita Laulainen, senior at MSCTC and student writer for The Frontiersman

Two hundred years ago, the wood bison disappeared from Alaska. Now, it is almost ready to be reintroduced back into the wild.

In 2003, 13 wood bison were brought to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center in Portage, Alaska, to begin the growth of a healthy herd. Two years later, the first calves were born. Currently, in 2014, the herd consists of 135 bison- except for two that are now skeleton school projects.

Using animal skeletons as a learning experience was an idea first developed ten years ago by Timothy Lundt, when he taught at Burchell High School. Mr. Lundt wanted to come up with a way to learn about Alaska wildlife, anatomy and the differences between animals through hands-on activities. Therefore he created a "skeleton in a box," which includes an entire animal skeleton, a stand, a manual, a diagram of the bones, a step-by-step video tutorial, and lesson plans. These kits would then be loaned out to other schools to study Alaska wildlife and comparative anatomy.

Through a partnership with the Department of Fish and Game kits of animal skeleton began to circulate in schools in the Mat-Su Valley. At first, skeletons of two moose, two black bears, and two wolves were made, and their use in schools was a success. The collection, now housed at Mat-Su Career & Technical High School, has grown to include another moose, a lynx, and, just very recently, two wood bison.

Through these skeleton kits the momentous restoration of the Wood Bison can be learned about by students. With the help of grants and donations from the Alaska Safari Club, the Outdoor Heritage Foundation, Alaska Department of Fish and Game, and Toshiba, Mr. Lundt will not only be able to spread the word, but he will also be giving students all over the state the chance to learn the anatomy with hands-on articulation with the actual bones.

The project officially began in January 2014, with two wood bison were culled from the herd with the help of Tom Seaton, wildlife biologist, from Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Students in Mat-Su Career & Technical's Alaska Wildlife and Culinary classes were able to participate in the process first-hand. From Portage back to Career-Tech, they learned how to field dress, butcher, and salvage edible meat. The edible meat was given to charitable donations and the bones were carefully separated for processing.

To make the bones presentable, first the meat had to be removed, then boil for six hours, scraped, whitened and finally painted with epoxy for protection and durability.

However in order to actually make the skeleton presentable, the bones had to be able to stay upright. As a bison skeleton is very different from that of a moose or a bear, a special stand had to be designed. Jim Egger, a welder instructor in designing and building all the other stands, again loaned his services for this special project.

As the stand was being put together bones were sent to Lee Post in Homer. Precise and detailed drawings needed to be made in order to allow teachers and students alike to see the connection between an assortment of bones and a complete skeleton. Because Mr. Post has been involved with the skeleton projects from the beginning, he will be able to make the concise representation essential for such an undertaking.

Once each skeleton in a box is complete, with manuals, drawings, lesson plans, and tutorials, one skeleton will be available for check out from Career Tech. The other will go north to the villages were the wood bison will be released.

As the largest North American land mammal species, and once endangered, the wood bison is special to Alaskans. However due to their status and a lack of study material, familiarity with the animal's origins is uncommon. Now, through these skeletons, everyone will have the chance to become an expert. In a truly unique experience, students and teachers alike will learn about a distinctly individual animal, one with history directly connected to that of the lands on which we live.

Anita Laulainen is a senior at Mat-Su Career & Technical High School and a student writer for the Frontiersman.

Mat-Su Career and Technical Center