Wood Bison Roam the U.S. for First Time in a Century

By Carl Engelking | March 23, 2015 2:41 pm

wood bison

After vanishing from their wild habitats over a century ago, wood bison, the largest land mammals native to North America, now roam freely in Alaska once again.

The first group of 30 juvenile wood bison arrived in the rural Alaskan village of Shageluk after making a one-hour flight from the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center on Sunday. Over the next several weeks, 70 more wood bison will make the same trip before ultimately being released as a herd into the Inoko Flats — the same lands their ancestors thundered upon for thousands of years.

Courtesy Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center (AWCC)

Courtesy Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center (AWCC)

Years in the Making

Wood bison are the lesser-known and larger cousins of plains bison, the kind that once roamed the continental U.S. (and still do, in isolated areas). Wood bison are native to Alaska and Canada. A fully-grown wood bison bull will often weigh 2,250 pounds, as compared to the 1,900-pound bodies of the smaller plains bulls.

For over 10,000 years, Athabascan natives hunted wood bison for food, shelter and clothing, but the story of their decline is one we’ve heard many times. Overhunting and loss of habitat drove wood bison numbers into decline, and by the early 1900s they were regarded as extremely rare or possibly extinct in the wild.

In 1957 a herd of about 200 wood bison was discovered in Canada. Through sustained conservation efforts by Canadian governmental agencies, wood bison numbers grew to 2,500. The 100 wood bison that are being released came from the Canadian herd.

You can also expect to see the wild herd’s numbers grow rather soon: 25 of the 50 cows being moved are pregnant. The wildlife center confirmed the first successful bison shipment over the weekend.

A Bright Future

As the herd is released, wildlife officials will intensely monitor its activities for at least one or two years. Starting with 100 animals provides enough genetic diversity to ensure the herd will continue to grow in the United States. Once the herd reaches 300 or so, a closely regulated hunt could open for people in nearby villages.

For those in the business of preserving endangered species, the wood bison’s comeback is a story rarely told.

“It’s such an opportunity to go back in time and right a wrong. We as people never get a chance to do that, but in this case, they did. And today’s the day we correct that mistake,” Mike Miller, director of the wildlife conservation center, told the Associated Press.

It’s been a long road, but through concerted efforts and collaboration, the wood bison are finally returning home.


Top photo credit: BGSmith/Shutterstock

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, top posts
  • Thomas Bauer

    Loss of habitat? As far as I know, there is not today, or has there ever been a structure or road in the Inoco Flats!
    There has been no farming or ranching in the Flats either.
    So if we have to choose between the two possible reasons for their extinction, and the Inoco Flats habitat is as it has been for 10,000 years, it leaves few choices.

    • GuestWhom

      From the article… “Overhunting and loss of habitat drove wood bison numbers into decline”

      Bison are migratory and need open waterways to migrate and obviously much of their historic migratory area in Canada and the northern USA is obstructed with fences, homes, etc. Purposeful over-hunting and the settlement of North Amercia are no doubt the fault the species almost went extinct. The same thing happened to the plains bison which went from a population of around 50 million to about 325 bison in a few decades during the 1800s.

      • Thomas Bauer

        Does any of what you’re mentioning apply to Alaska? I read this article about Shageluk, Athabascan hunters, and the Onoco Flats as being about Alaska.

        • CTOH

          Europeans over hunted them. White men. White men are always to blame. Native people know how to treat their mother with respect, because she sustains them. White men? Greed. They left after raping the land for all they could get and left it despoiled. It has taken this long for it to recover.

          • AZNative

            That is total nonsense. Native Americans are responsible for the extinction of dozens of species of large mammals after the last ice age. If you want an example of how well Native Americans protect and care for their land go to the Navajo reservation and witness all of the overgrazing, thousands of illegal trash dumps, uranium and coal mines and now they want to build a resort and tramway to the bottom of the Grand Canyon at a Hopi sacred site. People are people. The romantic “noble savage” concept was and still is a myth.

          • Ron

            I very much degree with the “noble savage” myth proposed by Rousseau. American natives were no more conservation minded than anyone else before Theodore Roosevelt. I do take issue with “man” having driven dozens of species of large american mammals into extinction following the last Ice Age. We have no evidence of this although it is conceivable that ancient man could have been a co-factor. Anyone who believes otherwise MUST explain the extinction of other large mammals in Asia and Europe towards the end of the last Ice Age, although these same animals had been in contact with “man-the-hunter” for 400,000 years or more. They must also explain why megafauna still exist in subSaharan Africa and South Asia. We believe “people” have been hunting beasts in these locations for millions of years without driving them into extinction [two elephant species, 5 rhino species, hippos, tigers, lions, a number of buffalo species, giraffes, eland etc].

          • arslonga vitabrevis

            You show a great deal of ignorance in citing Rousseau. What a poor reference. I suggest you go live in a Native Community to learn how they think, how they live. They have always had a deep spiritual connection to the land, the sky, the waters. They have always honored their mother and all their relations. Why would one site Rousseau, go live with a tribe for real truth and knowledge.

          • Jack

            I blame the noble savages for killing all the Sasquatch population. a once thriving ecosystem now all gone.

      • Chad Hatten

        good point

    • Chad Hatten


  • disqus_tnUE7PBxFZ

    Historically overhunting tends to appear among both indigenous and immigrated populations when rifles and ammunition become commonly available. Even for Native people a conservation ethic tends to be more the effect of limited means of hunting opportunities rather than something that’s taught, modeled, and enforced.

    When I moved to Alaska in 1976 this project was just a dream of scientists, some of whom have died or retired without ever being able to make it happen. It’s really satisfying to see animals begin to hit the ground. Maybe it’s just as well it’s taken this long because it takes DNA to really know if you’re doing all you can to avoid inbreeding, and that wasn’t possible back in the ’70s and ’80s.

    • Chad Hatten


  • eztempo

    Wasn’t there a “woodlands” bison in the Eastern U.S. (Kentucky, New York, and region) that was smaller than the plains buffalo that were hunted to extinction with European settler’s westward expansion?

    • Donn Ahearn

      Just like the controversy over when, precisely, the coyote was in the Northeast (or the red wolf for that matter), this is a question to which we’ll never truly know the answer, although it seems to me at least likely.

      • Ron

        Donn, The Red Wolf was actually localized to a large area of the Southeast. It may nor may not be a subspecies of the timber wolf or even a separate, unique species. Some geneticists believe it was always a hybrid wolf-coyote [hybrid clone] which is why it interbred so readily with invasive coyotes rendering the wild Red Wolf more-or-less extinct. Millions are being spent on reintroduction efforts, efforts that make little sense if the animal is a hybrid that breeds indiscriminately with coyotes.

        • mary Wms

          There was a PBS documentary on the Coywolf ..If I remember right it’s happening in the North East too.

    • mary Wms

      I imagine there were several subspecies in the continent.

      • Ron

        I’ve looked it up a little bit. It seems like the eastern “woods” bison [Bison bison pennsylvannicus] that extended over the eastern seaboard to Florida, was but an environmental variant of the plains bison and not the northern athabascan bison. The so-called ‘mountain bison’ was the athabascan bison. The bison in Yellowstone were plains bison introduced in 1917.

        • arslonga vitabrevis

          I have heard and read historians accounts of just the opposite. The midwestern Woodland Bison was larger than the plains bison. There were many variants besides the pennsylvannicus. San Diego zoo sites an 1852 study claiming 14 North American species at that time and Charles Slocum states bison (to be found everywhere (Brayton, 1982)) in Defiance were gone by 1812. Since the one study was done after the disappearance, that tells you they missed a lot. I have always heard it is the woodland bison in the midwest, distinct and larger than the plains bison. I do know that George Washington was on a campaign to get rid of Native Americans and decimating the herds in the northwest, was not the first time that practice was put to use. It was done in the midwest also.

    • arslonga vitabrevis

      The local historians and naturalists have told me it was the Woodland Bison and it was bigger than the Plains bison. It was hunted to extinction like the beaver and Elk in the area. I am not finding much on it on the internet. Imagine that. They just want us to forget it ever was, but my understanding is that a small herd of it migrated out of an area of Canada my mother used to live in, it was thought to be extinct and then this herd appeared and people started breeding it. I heard this about 15 years ago. I would like to see the Woodland Bison back in the midwest. I imagine there aren’t a whole lot of people who feel this way. I imagine most would just like us to forget. We did have a beaver and bear pass through not too long ago. People didn’t like the bear part. Sad. Sad what humans are doing to this land. We are poor stewards. And now we are even making the land inhabitable for ourselves. We have no honor, no sense of balance.

  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    Perhaps the most successful bush meat is Siberian wild boar. Introduced into the Southern US as hunting stock, it is the Superman of vicious survivable meat. Put some of those into Alaska, then legislate “right to carry” for grenade launchers. Reproduction is remarkable – eat, sleep, make hogs.

    • CTOH

      That would be considered an ‘invasive’ species and a HORRIBLE idea! TOTALLY not what we are talking about here. This is RE-INTRODUCING a NATIVE species. A GOOD thing.

      • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

        Remove honeybees (Apis mellifera) from the US and earthworms from Canada; horses, cows, dogs, cats, starlings…from North America.

        Reintroduce malaria and yellow fever to New Orleans and Washington, DC. Please. Gene-gineer the passenger pigeon. They stripped grain fields like locusts.

        • mary Wms

          What is your point? Are you being sarcastic? Funny?

          • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

            When flapping your pie hole, be prepared to defend what escapes. If “invasive species” are bad things as class, remove all invasive species. If you are lace-trimmed panties selective, the counter-argument degrades to personal taste. Personal taste has no empirical traction. Also, note abuse of uppercase.

          • mary Wms

            oh..you just like to be rude..I got it now

          • Ervin Dacoscos Malalis

            Uncle Al is being a troll. His opinions are irrelevant.

          • Chad Hatten

            don’t feed the troll

          • http://www.Ingersoll.net StormBringer

            White Man is an invasive species to North America! Remove thyself Whitey – go home! I’m Indian btw.

        • mary Wms

          Oh and Uncle Al? I know you think that you are more intelligent than anyone else that may enter a discussion, but did you know that most serial killers feel the same way? Just because your intelligent doesn’t mean you are accepted by society, right? Does this interaction give you satisfaction?

          • arslonga vitabrevis

            Regurgitating a few facts is not intelligence, thoughtful and enlightening processing of environment is intelligence. As you have noted there is an alternative agenda..

        • jeger nihighsa

          Uncle Al,you do realize the horse family evolved in North America. Based off of numerous fossil discoveries and the earliest dated species found in the continent. So in a way the horse falls under the “Reintroduction” category..

      • Chad Hatten


  • bildanielson

    While an interesting event the fact remains that more than 99 percent of all species that ever lived on the planet are extinct. Whether due to man, or some other natural mechanism (man is, btw, part of nature), this reintroduction should be viewed in geologic context. As such, it’s actually rather and profoundly insignificant, although admittedly heart-warming. So, why not attempt to reintroduce the Wooly Mammoth or other extinct species?

    • UpperLeftCoast

      Yes. When the sun goes nova, you are irrelevant. So what?

  • CTOH

    Beautiful! Don’t tell Sarah Palin!

    • blaze68

      Um she lives in Alaska so I’m quite sure that independent strong outdoorsy woman who doesn’t need to ride the coattails of a man who wants to debate the meaning of the word “IS”, knows very well they are being transported up there.

    • wayne.etheridge1@yahoo.com

      Isn’t she in the hospital with her whore offspring…. and getting bandaged up from her last bar brawl …. can you imagine her being a vice president…. wow… I never did find out where her “handicapped” child is being caged… I guess if you are born in Alaska, you get part of the oil cash yearly… If I offended anyone with my post… well, its all good…. and the truth…. I cannot stand the witch, just like Kim K and her porn flicks…. also her mama… and step daddy… now Catlyn is not a bad looking (what ever she/he is….) person… I guess a little makeup will go a long way… did you see Kim K. taking a picture in that dirt pile…. we could send Sarah to N. Korea, so she can beat the hell out of Kim Jong Un…. not back to the bison in Alaska, I wish them the best…. hopefully the can make it back to Florida….. maybe …. one day….

  • Ron

    Although seldom emphasized, near extinction of bison was also related to diseases introduced by domestic cattle. And, what are the relationships between the mountain bison and the bison that roamed the woodlands of America east of the Mississippi? Are bison in Yellowstone native or introduced plains bison? Buffalo, New York may have been named for local bison. Bayou Bouef in Louisiana was also reportedly named for bison resident at the time of the first French explorers. I’m sure there are other examples.

    • oatwillie

      …and in turn, bison carry brucellosis which are a danger to cattle.

    • Chad Hatten


  • david collins

    what a great story!!!

    • Chad Hatten


  • Mississauga_Dad

    And kudos to Canada for making this possible. Canada also, through its conservation efforts, was able to provide wolves and bald eagles to the U.S. to help re-populate these wonderful natural treasures.

  • Ron

    I don’t think so, Marry. The Red Wolf is a fairly distinct biotype, possibly a hybrid clone and, before the arrival of the white man, may have extended from Texas to Florida and maybe as far North as North Carolina and maybe Tennessee. The last remnant Red Wolves were/are in Southeast Texas and Southwest Louisiana. I’ve seen a couple in Louisiana and their vocalizations are the deep howls of a lobo wolf, not a coyote.

    You may be thinking of the fact that many northeastern coyotes are very large and, genetically, have some wolf ancestry. Conversely, some wolves in Quebec and Ontario have some coyote ancestry. The is a wolf subspecies, known as the Algoquin Wolf of Eastern Canada. It is one of the smaller wolves and some researchers have claimed that it was a cognate of the souther Red Wolf. I know nothing of its genetics, however.

  • Chad Hatten Houston

    chad hatten .;

  • Alexander Nijman

    I never knew they had wood bisons living that far north in a boreal forest. Good they get reintroduced in their former area. Here in Europe the European bison gets reintroduced in more and more areas. And lots of wildlive is making a comeback here thanks to the chance of the attitude of man. From shooting down everything in the past till protecting the same animals nowadays is a great progress! And as a result animals like the wolf are making their comeback here in countries like Germany and Denmark.

    • arslonga vitabrevis

      The Woodland Bison was also in the American Midwest but the powers that be want us to forget that.

      • jeger nihighsa

        It’s common knowledge they existed in the northeast. I looked at a historic range map,and the Midwest was included.

  • Chad Hatten

    great story

  • Chad Hatten

    well written

  • chad edward hatten


  • arslonga vitabrevis

    The Woodland Bison was also native the the American Midwest. Naturalists and Historians can tell you this although this truth is suppressed on the internet. The Woodland Bison was hunted to extinction in early settlement much like the beaver. The elk, cougar, bear, beaver, Woodland Bison, bobcat were once all over our woods.



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