BETHEL – Bison 124 was special, an unusually strong and adventurous animal. Biologists had high hopes for it.
Its wanderings in a new world made it an important member of the captive wood bison herd released into the wild in 2015, said Tom Seaton, a state wildlife biologist who oversees the Alaska Wood Bison Restoration Project.
People in villages up and down the Kuskokwim River, and beyond, loved to catch glimpses of it. The young cow had potential to become the nucleus of a satellite herd.
Then someone shot it.
Troopers say that happened Friday near the village of Quinhagak, by the Bering Sea coast about 70 miles from Bethel. They've charged Benjamin Moore, 25 — who is from nearby Eek and recently moved to Quinhagak, with two misdemeanors for, troopers say, illegally taking and possessing game. The meat was donated to an organization in Bethel.
It's the first poaching casualty of a herd that likely won't be big enough to support a legal hunt for another five to 10 years, Seaton said Tuesday.
Between April and June 2015, the state released 130 wood bison along the lower Innoko and Yukon rivers, an area near the Innoko River village of Shageluk picked for strong community support of the wood bison restoration.
[Meet the nation's only wild wood bison herd, which now roams Western Alaska]
"These are the people's bison," Seaton said. "This project, since the beginning, has been public-driven, with local people driving the train to make this happen."
He learned of the death in a phone call over the weekend. He is a scientist and not one to get emotional.
Yet: "I was sad. I can say that. And I was sad for the people in the areas where the bison have a future."
The death is a loss that may slow expansion of the herd, the state says. Bison may be a draw for wildlife watchers or a food source in an area that relies on subsistence.
Fish and Game officials sent out a strongly worded notice. "Wood Bison Death Leaves Unfortunate Void," the email subject line said.
Most of the captive bison didn't go far, which was a good thing, Seaton said. Maybe a dozen wandered 90 to 100 miles.
"They can go wherever they want. They are free," he said.
Two kept on. One young cow went north and another, Bison 124, went south and all around, exploring the Yukon, Innoko and Kuskokwim drainages.
It was spotted in 2015 around Kalskag and Aniak on the Kuskokwim.
"There were a lot of neat pictures," Seaton said.
Around the time of the fall rut, the animal circled back up to the main herd but there is no evidence it bred.
It was spotted by residents of Grayling and Anvik, Holy Cross and Shageluk. It was seen near Russian Mission on the Yukon.
By early 2016 the animal was back in the Kuskokwim drainage. Residents of Akiachak saw it. It caught Kwethluk's interest.
Then it kept on going, walking on wildlands, past Bethel and Tuntutuliak. By the first of September it was between the villages of Eek and Quinhagak.
Moose sometimes favor human trails, but bison make their own way and eat grasses and sedges, different plants than moose or caribou, Seaton said.
Bison usually get to the edge of good feeding grounds and turn back.
"This animal just kept finding good stuff and kept going," the biologist said. "She was really fat. She was in really amazing condition."
All the while, Bison 124 was learning the land and what it held. Perhaps the bison would have made its way back to the main herd and led others to what it found. Maybe some other captive bison would have been released near it, Seaton said.
"It was a particularly special animal that had a lot of knowledge," the biologist said.
He was speaking from the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, which cared for the wood bison before they were released and still has 20 of the animals. Seaton was helping the state veterinarian give the captives checkups and do routine medical work.
By December, Bison 124 was approaching Quinhagak. The state sent posters to hang in public buildings so people would know it was not to be hunted and what it looked like.
The charges against Moore indicated the incident happened halfway between Eek and Quinhagak on a trail. Moore indicated to a wildlife trooper that he came across the animal and shot it from a distance, but hadn't been out hunting it, said trooper spokesman Tim DeSpain. Moore salvaged the meat but troopers confiscated it along with his rifle.
Wood bison are native to Alaska and northwestern Canada, inhabiting these lands for thousands of years. But sometime in the last 200 years, they disappeared from Alaska, probably because of unregulated hunting and changes in their habitat, according to the state Department of Fish and Game, citing evidence from skeletal remains and oral histories of Alaska Native people.
Wood bison were at one point declared extinct. Then in 1957, a small herd was discovered in Canada. Now the Alaska restoration project joins Canadian conversation efforts.
When the Alaska herd size reaches 250 or so, a limited hunt could be allowed, Seaton said. The state wood bison management plan was created by 28 entities, from tribal councils to the Alaska Outdoor Council. including a number of state fish and game advisory councils.
Some of the wood bison died in the wilderness. Almost right off, nine fell through ice and drowned. Five others couldn't make the transition from captive living to the challenges of foraging in the wild.
But with births of calves, the herd is growing. From aerial counts the state estimates there are about 138 wood bison in Alaska. The animals are larger than plains bison.
The fitter animals survived. They've gained strength from roaming the land. Now they may know to avoid ice at breakup and freezeup. Or if they fall through, they may be able to heft themselves out, Seaton said.
The other wandering cow is still alive and exploring. People in Galena, Ruby and beyond are excited to see it, the biologist said. They are thinking about what was, and what may come.
On Tuesday, youths at McCann Treatment Center in Bethel were helping cut up and package the meat from the poached animal. The center planned to distribute much of it to elders.