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Biologists report first wild bison births in Alaska in at least a century

Biologists monitoring the new Innoko River wood bison herd got a pleasant surprise last month during an aerial survey of the animals: a bison calf, the first born in the wild in at least 100 years.

The calf was seen April 23, according to Cathie Harms, Alaska Department of Fish and Game regional program manager. She said Fish and Game does the survey every few days, so it's unclear when the calf was born, but it was likely only a few days before. And on Friday, biologists spotted yet another calf.

The biologists celebrated their discovery.

"It felt like having a baby shower or something. It's just huge," Harms said. "It's like the completion of the circle. We finally got animals into the wild and they are taking to it tremendously."

Harms said about 25 pregnant cows were moved from the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center in Portage to the Innoko River region in March to establish the population. The animals have a nine-month gestation period, and Harms said many of the calves conceived at the center, 60 miles south of Anchorage, are expected to be born from late April through June.

The birth is part of a 24-year project to reintroduce wood bison to the region. The animals once roamed Interior Alaska but mostly disappeared from the region in the 1800s.

After a herd was established at the Portage wildlife center, a change in U.S. Fish and Wildlife rules deeming the population "non-essential experimental" allowed the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to move 100 of the animals to the village of Shageluk in March. After several weeks of acclimating in fenced areas around the village, the bison were released this month.

Harms said at least two of the animals have died since they were released. She said biologists did not know the exact cause of death but determined it was not a result of predation. Harms expects approximately 10 percent of the herd will be lost each year.

Harms said 30 large bulls still at the conservation center -- weighing about 2,000 pounds each -- will be trucked from Portage to Nenana, where they will be shipped via barge to join the rest of the herd in late May.