Another new horizon for wood bison in Alaska

After a steep population drop in Western Alaska’s reintroduced wood bison herd, a state biologist sees a plan for a new herd in the Interior as promising. But two tribal groups oppose it.

FAIRBANKS — Alaska’s decades-long project to restore North America’s largest land mammal to Interior and Western Alaska will begin a new phase this summer with an expansion into a second region.

Next month, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game will start transporting about 65 wood bison to Minto Flats State Game Refuge about 35 miles west of Fairbanks for release into the wild there next year.

Wood bison, once wide-ranging across the state, dropped to just a few hundred animals in North America by the early 1900s. Alaska’s program is the only one of its kind for wood bison in the United States.

The decision to move wood bison into the Minto Flats area on the Lower Tanana River comes nine years after the state first released them in Western Alaska’s Lower Innoko and Yukon rivers region in 2015. That population has fallen sharply, causing some to ask why the state is ramping up reintroduction into the Interior now.

Tom Seaton, the lead Fish and Game biologist for the bison reintroduction program, in an update last year acknowledged the population hasn’t grown as “would be expected from a herd with a prosperous future.”

But this summer, Seaton said he’s convinced the effort should carry on. He said the population loss in Western Alaska was largely the result of extreme winter conditions, the likes of which also take a toll on other Alaska ungulates like caribou and moose.

“I truly believe that wood bison can still survive in Interior Alaska for the long term and do as well as any other ungulate,” Seaton said.

Two Interior tribal organizations, however, have expressed opposition to wood bison release in the Lower Tanana River area. Both Doyon Limited and Tanana Chiefs Conference said managing existing species and addressing the disastrous Yukon River salmon decline should be a higher priority for Fish and Game.


“I just don’t understand why the state feels like they have to force them into an area where they’re really not wanted,” said Chief Brian Ridley, Tanana Chiefs chairman.

As final preparations continued in June to barge wood bison down the Tanana River to their new range, Seaton said he still sees broad support, an opportunity to restore a subspecies once thought extinct, and a chance to diversify Alaska ecosystems. He said he remains optimistic about the long-term outcome of the reintroduction project, both for purposes of conservation and to contribute a hunting resource to Alaska’s people.

Seaton, who had previously worked managing Alaska’s moose, sheep and caribou populations, said it was Canada’s success with wood bison that caught his attention about 15 years ago. He said he likes challenges and the chance to think big.

“If you’re in the business, like Fish and Game is, of creating sustainable harvest for people, and maintaining populations in perpetuity for generations to come, bison fit into that very well,” he said.

[State kills over 80 bears in Southwest Alaska in second-year effort to boost caribou]

Back from the edge

In mid-June, about 50 wood bison slowly moved as a group around fenced fields at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Large Animal Research Station. Snorts rumbled and hooves clomped beneath hulking bodies as they vacuumed up grass with their heads to the earth.

Cows occasionally nudged the hind ends of lounging newborn calves, which scampered, nursed and rested again. A 3-year-old bull curiously approached the fence line where Seaton tossed cubes of alfalfa. The bull, sporting the wood bison’s signature long, straight forelock, could double in size in years to come. Bulls reach 2,000 pounds.

The bucolic scene belies the heavy lift of Alaska’s Wood Bison Restoration project, an effort conceived about 30 years ago and made possible, in large part, by Canada’s work rebuilding a bison population that almost disappeared from North America by the turn of the 20th century.

Wood bison once roamed a broad swath of Alaska’s Interior and Southcentral regions as well as Northwest Canada. Plains bison, the slightly smaller of the two North American bison subspecies, are not native to Alaska. They were introduced in the 1920s and now total about 900 animals in herds near Delta Junction and elsewhere.

Seaton said that while it’s unknown exactly why wood bison nearly disappeared in North America, hunting and habitat changes were likely to blame.

In the 1950s, a small group of wood bison was discovered in Canada and relocated to Elk Island National Park in Alberta. Since then, the population has been managed for conservation and reintroduction to the wild.

“Without their efforts to create a disease-free conservation herd, we’d be dead in the water,” Season said of the Canadian conservation project.


Alaska received wood bison from Canada in 2008, but it would take another seven years before they were released.

One factor contributing to the delay was wood bison’s listing as endangered in Canada, a designation that carried over under a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service interpretation. In 2012, they were downlisted to “threatened.” Alaska’s wood bison in 2014 were deemed a “non-essential experimental population,” a designation that could one day allow for hunting if the population grows substantially.

Other hurdles included moving the animals from Canada, figuring out where to release them in Alaska, and border closures that followed the spread of mad cow disease in North America.

Seaton said he was incredulous when then-Gov. Sean Parnell’s administration gave the program the go-ahead.

“I remember my boss came to me in mid-2014 and said, ‘Well, the governor just said it’s a go.’ And after years and waiting and prepping, I didn’t even believe my boss. I thought he was teasing me,” Seaton said.

Seaton and his colleagues had just six months to get the bison to the Lower Innoko region, about 300 miles off Alaska’s highway system. One hundred wood bison, most held for years at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center south of Anchorage, were flown to a pen near Shageluk in April 2015. Thirty more arrived by barge later that year.


[From 2016: Meet the nation’s only wild wood bison herd, which now roams Western Alaska]

The release has attracted national and international media attention.

“It’s really the beginning of wild wood bison in the United States,” Seaton said at the time.

Harsh winter

The numbers have told a complicated story since then.

According to annual counts before 2022, when Fish and Game released 28 additional bison at Innoko River, the herd grew four times and declined twice. Bolstered by the new arrivals and the birth of calves, the herd was at its largest numbers going into the winter of 2022-23.

Only half survived.


An aerial survey last year counted 72 bison in the Innoko area where the state has released 158 animals since 2015.

Seaton said the region saw snow in “astronomical” amounts. Though wood bison are built to sweep snow with their heads to uncover forage, a thaw-freeze cycle in early winter had encapsulated the ground in ice, he said.

“Some were dying because of the inability to access enough forage to maintain body condition …,” Seaton said. “They can last for months with difficulty, but they can only last so long.”

When the spring melt finally came in May, flooding followed on the grasslands on which bison depend, leading to calf mortality.

Seaton said late winter melts, deep snow and ice layers cause other species to die in Alaska, too. “It’s inside the normal limits of population fluctuations based on weather for all ungulates of Alaska,” he said.

Similar late-winter stress killed Innoko wood bison in 2017-18, Seaton said. In that period, the herd declined from an estimated 140 to 91. “It was the first time that I just really had to accept that Mother Nature was in control and not me,” he said.

Rick Thoman, a climate specialist for the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy, said climate model estimates showed mid-April snowpack in the Holy Cross and Shageluk areas near the Innoko herd has been above the 30-year average six of the last seven years. Early-April snow measurements near Grayling have been above average since 2018.

Those measurements aren’t unprecedented, but represent a stark contrast to the few years prior to 2018, Thoman said, and the consecutive run of heavy-snow winters is unusual.


Seaton said it hits him hard every time there’s a “mortality event,” but it hasn’t shaken his belief in the program. There’s another way to look at the numbers, he said: Half the wood bison population endured during the harshest weather.

“That shows that even in extreme conditions, they can still make it. And when conditions are normal, the population grows,” Seaton said.

[Alaska mountain goats live on the edge, and perish at a surprisingly high rate in avalanches]


Not everyone is on board with the upcoming release in the state refuge at Minto Flats.

Tanana Chiefs Conference, a Fairbanks-based consortium that includes 37 federally recognized tribes to provide health care, social services and community planning, said the tribal representatives who make up its board of directors voted unanimously in March to oppose the bison release in the Lower Tanana.

Ridley, the Tanana Chiefs chairman, said Fish and Game’s consultation with its tribes consisted of educational presentations on the animal and the reintroduction process, but fell short of asking if they were for or against a release in the region.

It was like the state representatives were “trying to check a box,” he said. “Our people, more than anything, just want to be heard and know that whoever we’re consulting with are actually listening to us and taking our comments into consideration,” Ridley said.

Ridley said he’s convinced the state’s focus is to one day provide big hunting opportunities for Outside groups, not provide local harvest and subsistence hunting. The wood bison program represents a distraction to the management of other species, he said.

“Our biggest complaint, and I’ve told the commissioner to his face, (is) their job is to manage fish and game for Alaska, be it for subsistence or for all the residents,” Ridley said.

“My fear is they’re not doing their job, they’re not managing the resource. And they want to replace moose and caribou with outside bison to try to make up for their lack of management, and they want to replace our wild salmon with hatchery fish,” he said.

Doyon Limited, an Alaska Native regional corporation that holds ownership in lands across Interior Alaska, released a statement in January outlining its opposition to wood bison release in the Lower Tanana region and the Yukon Flats region, a third area Fish and Game has identified for eventual bison release.

Among its concerns, Doyon said Fish and Game has exaggerated the project’s potential benefit to local communities. The bison’s range, the statement said, could complicate access to Doyon’s resource development prospects in the Minto and Yukon Flats areas and could exacerbate existing trespass issues.

“These efforts to establish new herds are premature, especially considering the struggling status of the existing Innoko herd,” it said.

Doyon’s statement expressed support for continued release and study of bison in the Innoko area. Through a spokesperson, Doyon officials declined a request for an interview.

Seaton said Tanana Chiefs Conference was represented among several interested groups in the planning process. He said meetings were led by an independent facilitator who encouraged people to speak their minds.

“I believe that we heard loud and clear their concerns, both verbally and in writing,” Seaton said.

State law will ultimately guide allocation, he said.

“The No. 1 reason to do this is to restore a native species, and wood bison need our help,” Seaton said. “And the No. 2 reason to do this is to provide benefits to people. Now, that’s all people. That includes TCC members and Doyon shareholders, and all people that use public lands have access to public resources.”

Seaton also said it’s a mistake to view the wood bison program as weighing down a response to Alaska’s ongoing salmon disaster, because the bison program has a different staff and different funding sources. Three-quarters of wood bison program funding is federal money collected through excise tax on firearms and ammunition, he said. The state matches 25% through license and tag sales. Occasionally it contributes more.

“It is legitimate to be angry about salmon stocks in Alaska in 2024. That is a legitimate anger and concern, and we are all concerned about that,” Seaton said. “But the wood bison project has absolutely nothing to do with that and it doesn’t detract from that at all.”

[Western Alaska tribes, outraged by salmon bycatch, turn up the heat on fishery managers and trawlers]

Seaton said the bison restoration program has strong support from individuals and groups statewide. Fish and Game’s website lists dozens of donors, agencies and volunteers who have helped.

How to measure success

On a recent June day, several boxes of radio collars were stacked at the entry to Seaton’s small office in Fairbanks. A few bison skulls were displayed on his overflowing shelves. A day earlier, he had taken a boatload of fencing three hours downriver to help with construction of a soft-release pen near the banks of the Tanana River at Minto Flats.

In April, 40 wood bison trucked from Canada’s Elk Island National Park to Alaska joined 10 already being held at the Large Animal Research Station. In late July, nearly all of them will be transported to Nenana and loaded on a barge for the river journey to Minto Flats. More will arrive from the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center in August. Next year, they’ll be released into the vast sedge meadows of the state game refuge.

It’s not the release day that Seaton said he looks forward to most. It’s any of the days after that when he sees wood bison functioning in Alaska’s wild. The reintroduction effort requires long-view thinking, he said. After decades of work, he believes the program is finally on the cusp of accomplishing restoration.

In June, he and colleagues spotted 21 calves during an aerial count of the Innoko herd, which Seaton said indicates good growth. While the overall count was 74 animals, just two over last year’s, he suspected trees obscured several more. They’ll be counted again during this fall’s rutting season.

“I still get goosebumps when I see them in the wild doing their thing. When I fly down to the Innoko and there’s bison out there in a wet sedge meadow just grazing away or sitting on a little hill chewing their cud or something like that, that’s quite a special thing for me,” he said. “It never gets old.”

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Marc Lester

Marc Lester is a multimedia journalist for Anchorage Daily News. Contact him at