For centuries, the Athabascan people of Alaska have relied on the wood bison for their survival. That is until the species, considered by the National Park Service to be the largest land animal in North America, went extinct in the early 1900s.
So when a small herd of wood bison was discovered in a remote area of northern Canada in 1957, a reintroduction program was born to protect the animals from extinction.
“It’s really cool to be around a bison,” Sarah Howard, executive director of the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, told CBS News correspondent Jeff Glor.
In 2003, the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center partnered with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to create a sanctuary where wood bison could breed successfully in captivity.
In 2015, the first herd of 130 bison were flown to Shageluk, Alaska and successfully released into the wild. A year later, new calves were born.
Biologist Darren Bruning of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game said transporting the 2,000-pound animals takes “a lot of patience” but said their reintroduction to America was “a great opportunity to restore a missing piece of our incredible landscape.”
“I really can’t believe I could be a part of this,” Bruning told Glor. “It’s a dream come true for me.”
But the conservation project also had its difficulties.
In 2018, the department reported significant herd losses. The wood bison population that year fell from about 140 to 91. Biologist Tom Seaton attributed the decline to a “late winter stress event” that “took its toll on the herd.”
“Wood bison are still learning their range,” he wrote at the time. “If luck is with them and the weather is in their favour, they will one day thrive with a larger population and thus be much more able to withstand catastrophic snow events.
Despite the harsh winters, conservationists are still determined to revive the population.
In the summer of 2021, an all-time high of 26 calves was reported with the herd, growing over 10% since 2020. And so far in 2022, five calves have been born.
“Having a bison out there just creates a healthier environment,” Howard told Glor. “It creates a healthier ecosystem from bison-sized animals to voles and mice.”