How does a bison get airborne? Make a pest of itself in an Alaska village

Things were bustling in the small village of Grayling on the Yukon River late last month when a number of residents helped Alaska Department of Fish and Game staffers move a young but stubborn 5-year-old bison out of the village he'd taken a liking to.

Dubbed Bull 132, the animal was among the former residents of the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center in Portage that were released June 25 with 17 other bulls 4 miles upstream of Shageluk on the west bank of the Innoko River. It's about 22 miles from Shageluk to Grayling.

Students waited impatiently in their classrooms as Fish and Game biologists explained how they were going to anesthetize and move Bull 132, an animal the students of Grayling had grown to care for in the previous three weeks. They fed and watered it while preparations were made to move the bison that seemed to be stuck in the community of about 200 residents.

Before long, Yukon Helicopters arrived, approaching up the river in a massive Huey airship, the loud "wop, wop wop" of rotors cutting the air. By 1 p.m., half of the village had viewed the giant red bird sitting on the airport ramp. Then they moved to the bison pen to help with the loading.

At 1:30 p.m., biologist Tom Seaton darted Bull 132 and in three minutes, the bison was asleep, blindfolded and given supplemental oxygen. Fish and Game staff worked fast to collect the required samples, administer necessary medications and give a running tutorial to 15 students and more than 30 adults who watched the process. Once the samples were taken, the bull was rocked onto a tarp-sling, heaved into a snowmachine sled with the help of several men and quickly transferred to the airport. An entourage of 50 residents followed.

At the airport, the tarp-sling was sewn up with high strength rope to prevent the bull from sliding out in flight. As the tarp-sling was hooked to the helicopter, final checks were made on the animal's vitals. The bison hung perfectly under the helicopter, which traveled about 60 mph for 22 miles. The destination was a sedge meadow where another lone bull of the same age had been feeding that day. Wood bison bulls of his age often travel with one or two other bulls of similar age. Placing Bull 132 near the other bull increased the chances that he will establish home range away from the village.

Upon arrival, staff administered an immobilization reversal drug. In four minutes, the bison was up. He took a few jumps away from the tarp-sling, but then returned to give it a good sniff. Then he slowly walked off into the brush to feed, exhibiting normal bull bison behavior.


Why was he moved?

Bull 132 is a 5-year-old in good condition. Five years in bison-age amounts to about a half-sized animal with adolescent behavior.

Two-thirds of the bulls released in June joined cow groups for the coming rut. About a third were too young to be competitive in the rut and moved on to explore their new habitat. Cows and young bison (1-3 years old) often stick together in tight-knit groups, but bulls spend much of the year alone or in small groups of two or three.

By June 29, Bull 132 had struck out on his own.

By July 23, he had crossed the Yukon River and was 12 miles upstream of Grayling. He moved to the south end of the village on Dec. 1, where he stayed for most of December, January and February.

Nobody wants a 1,200-pound wild animal around town. Fish and Game personnel and community bison guards repeatedly hazed him out of town. Bison guards are locals trained to safely haze bison away from areas such as the airport or the village. Despite many hazing efforts, Bull 132 always returned.

The bull never showed aggression toward people and fled if approached.

As time went on, nerves wore thin with worries about children, elderly and others near the big animal. The bull found his way into abandoned buildings where the potential for injury from falling through the floor existed. People also reported seeing him eating cardboard and other refuse. Biologists believed his chances of surviving the winter would be better away from the village.

Time to take action

Most of the wood bison released in 2015 made the transition from captive to wild with few challenges. As expected, a few did not. Bull 132 survived the transition to the wild, but chose the wrong place to be wild — the village of Grayling.

In January, bison biologist and project leader Seaton asked local elders and leaders what options they preferred for dealing with the bull. One option was to kill the bison and distribute the meat to residents. Unanimously, elders and leaders of Grayling did not want the bison killed. They indicated the animal was too important to the future of the wood bison project to kill.

Local knowledge uncovered a helicopter pilot in Bethel with a ship big enough to lift the bull. After contact with Yukon Helicopters, owner Tom Ratledge was eager to do the job and generously agreed to discount his rate to help with wood bison conservation.

While the move was being planned, the Grayling school agreed to make a class project out of feeding and watering the bull if Fish and Game captured him and built a secure fence to hold him. On Jan. 29, a fence was built just south of town in the trees where the bull had been spending much of his time.

For the next few weeks, students of the Grayling school had perhaps the most amazing bison conservation experience ever afforded a school. They had their own bison to view and care for every day. In the classroom, they studied several aspects of wood bison care and natural history. Over the course of those weeks, the students developed a bond with Bull 132, and he was given at least three names.

After the move

In the six days following the relocation of Bull 132, he stayed within a mile of the feeding meadow where he was released. He was not seen near the other young bull, but they have stayed within a short walking distance of each other.

It is the policy of Fish and Game not to relocate nuisance animals, but in rare cases, it may be done. The patience that the village of Grayling exhibited with this bull and their request that this bull contribute to the future of wood bison conservation in the area had a lot to do with the decision to relocate this individual.

More than 95 percent of the 130 bison released in 2015 have not been seen near a village. A few have occasionally passed through, and this one decided to stay. Other bulls and one cow group have passed through the village of Grayling while exploring their new range in the last year, and all of them have moved on.

Mike Taras and Tom Seaton are Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologists. This article was originally published in the department's magazine, Alaska Fish & Wildlife News.