Alaska's wood bison herd thriving as calving season gets underway

It's baby animal season and Alaska's wild wood bison herd has delivered in a big way.

So far this spring, 19 calves have been born to the herd, the only one of its kind in the nation. More calves are expected through August.

And the herd appears healthy as it enters its third summer navigating Alaska's wilderness after generations of living in captivity, said Tom Seaton, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist overseeing the wood bison project.

"All the signs indicate that they are really prospering," Seaton said.

More calves have been born so far this year than by the same time in 2016. The latest count was done on May 2, with another planned for next week, Seaton said.

About 130 bison were released near the village of Shageluk during the summer of 2015. That first year, more than a dozen died. Nine bison drowned in less than a week. More perished from stresses of adapting to wild environment, Seaton said.

[Meet the nation's only wood bison herd, which now roams Western Alaska]

But this year only four have died. That's about equal to natural bison mortality rates, Seaton said. Now, there are roughly 150 bison in the herd.

Beyond the birth rates, the animals also appear physically healthy. The adults are in good shape. The young animals are growing well.

One bison born in the wild in 2015 and captured for radio tagging this year had experienced faster growth than any bison Seaton had seen in captivity.

"She was around, estimated around 650 pounds," Seaton said of the 2-year-old female. "It was pretty neat to see."

Overall, the herd is hanging out in the general area where they were introduced, with Holikachuk to the north, and Holy Cross to the south.

One bison was illegally shot in January. Known as "bison 124," the animal had wandered much farther than the rest of the herd, traveling past Bethel.

Before her death, bison 124 had the potential to bring knowledge of new habitat back to the herd, Seaton said.

[Wood bison killed illegally left 'unfortunate void,' state says]

Once there are 250 bison, the herd will be large enough to begin hunting legally, probably in eight to 10 years, according to Seaton. He has estimated a large bull weighing 1 ton would produce roughly 900 pounds of meat.

Through a negotiated agreement, one of every five permits will go to local villages in the surrounding area. The rest will go into a lottery available to other Alaskans and people from Outside.

Wood bison were brought back from the edge of extinction in the 1950s. Bison were once the Interior's most abundant species, University of Alaska Fairbanks scientists believe, but had disappeared by the time written history came around.

The wood bison's path to reintroduction in Alaska was envisioned decades ago, and took years to be realized.