“Here she comes!”
The call comes down from the metal catwalk that curves four steps high around one side of a wood-planked corral.
It’s a partial false alarm. The wood bison stops. She ignores all attempts to keep her moving, which include attracting her attention with what looks like the world’s biggest cat toy: a long pole, one end of which is wrapped with bright orange netting. She stands there, squared off against the world and any notion of moving forward.
A few people up on the catwalk go into a steady patter, trying to cajole the obstinate beast into moving along.
Stop arguing with me.
Why won’t you move?
“Did you try the tarp?” asks Kristen Lawrence, the executive assistant at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center (AWCC). She spends her days behind a desk, but a wood bison handling is an all-hands-on-deck kind of event.
Jason “Aaron” Mendive, whose job at AWCC can best be described as Aaron will do it — he handles maintenance and moving the large animals around, sometimes by going right in there with them — drapes one of Alaska’s most revered multipurpose tools, a tarp, over the wood-walled chute. The tactic helped get other wood bison moving earlier in the day.
Don’t be buffaloed by their obscurity
There’s no shame over a bit of huh? at the mention of wood bison. After all, their kin, the plains bison, offer the great American success story of species restoration, while the wood bison came close to shuffling off to extinction.
Extirpated from Alaska (most likely from overhunting and environmental changes), Canada’s wood bison population almost called it quits too after intermingling with the plains variety, sullying both their genetics and their health. But in 1959 a small group of pure wood bison was found in the northwest corner of Wood Buffalo National Park. Over time (and with significant help from the Canadian government and its national park system), that bunch kick-started their kind back to health. In 1988, Canada moved the wood bison from the endangered list to the (less-dire) threatened list. The United States followed suit in May 2012.
“In the United States…wood bison have been gone for somewhere around…we don’t really know, but let’s call it a couple of centuries,” says Tom Seaton, a wood bison biologist (and all-around ungulate guy) for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G). “Now is our chance to correct that and put them back where they were. Most of the really amazing and grand wildlife recovery adventures have already played out. This is really the last one.”
The wood bison is a cousin, if you will, to the better-known plains bison—both are subspecies of the American bison—and their scientific names seem straight out of a Belushi-era Saturday Night Live skit: the wood bison’s Bison bison athabascae to the plains bison’s Bison bison bison. (Bison are not buffalo.1)
Pump up a plains bison 15 to 20 percent and you’re in wood bison territory. Wood bison bulls average 2,000 pounds. They look like a caricature of a plains bison, with all their features more pronounced. They have beards so pointy Satan would weep with jealousy. And while plains bison have curly forelocks, wood bison sport a straighter style across their massive foreheads. “It’s like a combover,” Lawrence says.
Move ’em out
Mendive lifts the tarp back up and the wood bison steps forward. “Shut it,” Mendive says. Lawrence closes the last wood gate, and as the bison passes on through each metal chute, there’s a clattering from her hooves on the floor, occasional kicks against the walls, and volunteers pushing the sliding gates shut on their rollers, as though steampunk musicians were using metal garbage cans as massive cymbals.
Each chute has a specific purpose: some can be pushed in to calm the animals; one has a scale; another has a breakaway wall for bison that decide to walk in backwards and need to be turned around. Between each green metal chute stand sliding gates that, when closed at just the right moment, will keep a bison from moving ahead if there’s another in line in front of it or, just as importantly, from backing up.
But if there’s no bison ahead and the chutes are clear, it’s all about the first rule of bison handling: “Once they’re moving, keep them moving,” says Mendive. “Don’t let them stop or think about it.”
Along the chutes, a hodgepodge of people have assembled to help. This includes AWCC staffers, ADF&G employees, volunteers from companies that donate money or materials for the project, and paramedics from the nearby town of Girdwood. The paramedics are on hand just in case anybody gets hurt, but they’ve also gone vet tech for the day, filling syringes with supplements and dewormer for the animals.
It’s a random family of bison advocates. Some are seasoned bison-handlers, while others are newly minted, but all hope that, this time, the program to reintroduce wood bison into the Alaska wilderness won’t hit another delay.
Fingers remain crossed that come April 2015, wood bison will be on trailers heading for a cargo plane bound for their new home along the lower Innoko River — but everybody involved with the project knows better than to cross their fingers too tightly. They’re used to delays and changes.
One of three areas originally proposed for the reintroduction, the Innoko area is the only one left under consideration. It is not ideal, as it’s sited between two rivers, the Innoko and the Yukon, and it floods some years. But not every year. It will do.
The long tail
Talk of reintroduction has been floating around for more than 20 years. Robert O. Stephenson, now retired from his job as an ADF&G biologist, blew breath into the idea based on archaeological evidence — lots and lots of wood bison bones — and oral histories he collected from elders in Athabascan villages during the 1990s, their stories recounting their parents’ and grandparents’ tales of seeing wood bison.
But Alaska is a state run on resource development, and the idea of plopping protected animals onto lands that corporations are eyeballing can turn things a little funky. “If you go to a Resource Development Council meeting and say ‘endangered species,’ people are leaping out of windows,” says Mike Miller, AWCC’s founder and executive director.
For Seaton and Miller, along with Rita St. Louis, a wildlife planner for the ADF&G, the handling is practically a focused mini-vacation from wondering when they’ll get the go-ahead for the reintroduction. They’re waiting to hear back from US Fish and Wildlife about the latest version of a rule to designate the wood bison as a nonessential experimental population. The rule balances the bison’s needs with other possible uses for the reintroduction area. Or, as one person put it, the rule would make it theoretically possible for resource seekers to drill right next to a bison.
Once the final rule is published and the state gives the thumbs-up, planning for the next phase of the reintroduction begins. You don’t just load 2,000-pound beasts onto a plane on a whim. After the trip out to Innoko, the bison will be protected in a penned area for a month or so and then released for real. That’s the moment Miller wants to see, when the bison roam free — when they start to flex their muscle memory of what it is to be wild.
Miller started AWCC in 1993 as a for-profit “roadside zoo.” A non-profit since 1999, the center focuses on education, conservation, and the rehabilitation of injured wildlife. (Though, yes, visitors can still walk or drive through to go eyeball to eyeball with the center’s numerous wildlife residents, including a musk ox named Mukluk, grizzlies, and a bald eagle named Adonis.)
Thanks to a longtime fascination with bison — and years of plains bison experience — Miller was deep into trying to get the proper permits to bring wood bison to AWCC when US Fish and Wildlife dropped a herd of 13 into his lap. They were confiscated from a man who brought them across the border from Canada’s Yukon Territory to Delta Junction, Alaska.
With Alaska’s wildlife agency intent on reintroducing the animal into the wilderness and an additional 53 disease-free calves set to join them in 2008 from Canada’s Elk Island National Park, Miller gave the animals as a gift to the state.
“Pretty much the state has the authority,” Miller says. “They are their animals, and they have to have everything that they need to feel comfortable about releasing them. We just have to maintain and take care of them here the best way we can.”
The partnership between AWCC and the ADF&G is an unusual one. “Fish and Game doesn’t deal with captive animals,” says St. Louis from the state. There’s an incredible hopefulness and generosity in this work. Nobody on the gates today will live to see it all the way through. “[It] might take 100 years or something like that for them to fully recover to their status before 100 to 200 years ago,” Seaton says.
The team members are generous in their praise of one another, too. Stephenson’s name comes up constantly, as does that of Randy Rogers, a Fish and Game wildlife planner who was devoted to the animals. “He said ‘You know, I’m going to stick with this project because I promised those bison that I was going to see them in the Innoko,’” says St. Louis. “And I always bring Randy with me and his promise to them.” Rogers died, of cancer, in April 2013.
Just passing through
After days of unusually warm weather for an Alaska winter, the temperature hovers near zero. The frigid temps are a gift. Wood bison don’t love a warm day. The cold calms them. Their thick winter coats are better suited to heavy snow and to temperatures that can dip to minus 50° or 60° F. The handling crew relies on thick winter boots and hats, hand and body warmers, layers upon layers of insulated work clothes, quick visits to a warm shuttle bus that’s been pressed into service to keep the shots that will be administered to the bison from freezing, and event-induced adrenaline to offset the temperatures.
The final chute — an off-white beast run on hydraulics — is a makeshift vet’s office. It contains the bison so she can’t hurt herself. (The chute system is familiar to anybody who’s ever stepped foot on a cattle ranch or watched the HBO biopic about the technology’s inventor, Temple Grandin.)
“The sides kind of come in together not to squeeze the animal but enough so that there’s no room for them to kick hard and smack their legs,” says Seaton. “And right behind their head is the neck catch so they can’t swing their head too much. They could slam their head against stuff.”
Before the stubborn bison steps inside, Rick Henry, a local welder and AWCC constant, steps up to the controls. People speak of Henry in reverential tones. He doesn’t say much himself. Of all the day’s tasks, handling the hydraulics on the chute is one of the trickiest: there’s an art to it. Miller says of Henry, “You can’t get the man to panic. And he’s only got a little bit of vision because he has to look through those slats [on the chute] and you know he has to see and hit it right on the right time. He does it perfectly.”
The team’s goal: keep the animal’s stress to a minimum. As the animal gets fitted into the chute, Seaton ducks out of sight behind a board. Once she’s calmed a bit, he works with another team member to slip the loop of a bright orange blindfold over her nose and a clip behind her horns. Seaton says, “If I can put the blindfold on they usually just go calm.”
The blindfold on, the team steps up. With another ADF&G staffer recording data, Seaton checks the animal’s teeth and takes nasal swabs and blood. He checks for ear tags, punching a hole for a new one when necessary. At the side of the chute, local veterinarian Jerry Nybakken unlatches windows to give the bison shots of selenium, vitamin B, and dewormer. He takes her temperature, hoping to see it around 102 to 104 — anything higher indicates a stressed animal.
Then Tom Yeager, AWCC’s operations director — also freed from his desk for the day — takes his turn at the window to pull a hair sample for DNA testing. The latches closed, Seaton pulls out a small red point-and-shoot camera, snaps a photo, and slips back outside the gate behind the board. Henry reverses the hydraulics, and as she’s released to run back out to the fenced enclosures against a backdrop of snow-covered mountains and bright blue sky, the bison makes a show of an extra little foot stomp, a “well, I never” look on her face.
As she runs off, Seaton stands to watch her go and check her body condition. Then, just a brief moment of relief before the next bison comes through. So much can go wrong, but one more down, one more that went well. One by one, the cows run off to join the herd. As some young bulls come through, they’re loaded onto a truck for a quick trip out to a new grazing area.
The day ends when a pair of the herd’s old ladies — two of the original 13 — just stop. There’s no moving them. The next day starts in the dark at 8:30 a.m. and –4° F. The team is quieter, and there’s less first-day-of-school energy. Four hours later, three cows remain. Sixty-three others have passed through the chutes over the last two days. Now, last night’s session-ending pair convince a third to join their protest. A trio of wood bison Golden Girls, they’re in charge.
They gather into a defensive circle, turning their backs on the handling process. Their health checked again and again over the years, Seaton gives in to their demands, delivering their injections with the help of an eight-foot jab stick. “They weren’t interested in going through the chute that day,” he says.
When it comes to the wood bison program, patience clearly rivals the tarp as the greatest tool of all.
Photos by the author.
Freelance writer Jenna Schnuer is a New Yorker who, after 10 years of bouncing back and forth to Alaska, moved to Anchorage in September 2013. She writes for National Geographic Traveler, American Way, and BonAppetit.com, and is in the early stages of a book project about the reintroduction of wood bison to Alaska's wilds.