Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist Tom Seaton restored a piece of Alaska when he led the reintroduction of 130 wood bison to their predecessors’ historic range along the Innoko River in the spring and summer of 2015. Slightly larger and covered with more wooly hair than their cousins, the plains bison, wood bison once roamed much of the state. No one knows exactly when or why they disappeared, but bringing the wood bison back fills an important cultural niche and will benefit countless plants and animals. Seaton talked to Alaska about how the herd has been faring the last two years and what the future holds for wood bison. ~as told to Alexander Deedy
After decades of work, what was it like to watch those first bison run free as wild animals?
It didn’t hit me right away, because I was carrying so much responsibility in the moment. Days later when I was speaking to a local elder, I was overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude and accomplishment in service to Alaska’s wildlife and people. About two weeks after they were released, I was radiotracking from the air and saw the first calf born in the wild. I was struck with the awesome feeling that I was witnessing the beginning of Alaska’s first wild wood-bison herd in over 100 years.
How has the herd been faring over the last two years?
Quite well. We now have 150 or so animals in the wild. The bison have explored their habitat more than I expected they would. They know a 50 mile stretch of meadows, and use it expertly to get what they need as the seasons change. Body condition and growth rates of young animals are extremely good, indicating that the forage suits them. Their high rate of calving is another indicator they’re faring very well.
What is your favorite memory?
Working with the residents of Shageluk, Grayling, Anvik, and Holy Cross to build the temporary holding pen a few miles north of Shageluk. All those men and women working efficiently as a team, in the woods and snow, with a common dream of bison and excitement about the future.
What is the future for wood bison in Alaska?
The long-term goal is to restore wood bison populations to portions of their former habitat in Alaska so that they are again an integral part of Alaska’s wildlife, providing Alaskans and others the opportunity to enjoy, and benefi t from, this ecologically important northern mammal. It is hoped that someday they will be a common wildlife species much like moose are today. It took at least 130 years for moose to expand across Alaska from low numbers in eastern interior in the 1880s to almost all available habitat on mainland Alaska today. It may take as long for wood bison.
You think of yourself as a public servant and really stress the importance of public involvement and ownership in wood bison reintroduction. Why should people get involved, and what can they do if they want to?
Public involvement and ownership in wildlife conservation is the only way that wildlife can flourish. No government can successfully force people to conserve wildlife. People must be allowed to find the value of wildlife as they see it. This value can be in meat on the table, viewing, tourism, or just the happy thought in someone’s head that wood bison were saved from extinction and are now growing in number. To get involved, people can simply bring up wood bison at their next community meeting. If wood bison restoration is something that they are excited about, they can make it known to ADFG, and to other communities.