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Beware of Buffalo Chips: Bison Covertly Translocated for Restoration to the West

A covert operation to move 64 disease-free, purebred bison from Yellowstone National Park to Fort Peck, Montana–a distance of 500 miles–was achieved this week almost without incident. Two animals died. A yearling died en route and another animal suffered a fatal goring before the trip.

It happens. I can say that as mediocre bison wrangler.

What is most significant is that these bison, which will remain confined on the reservation, signify a great conservation achievement–returning plains bison to the West.  Some of these particular bisons’ offspring may represent future generations of animals that will be reintroduced to Montana’s wild lands.  Over-hunting nearly wiped out the plains bison, which roamed in the millions across much of North America in the 19th century.

Up here in Alaska, we are working on a similar effort to restore the endangered wood bison to the Interior Region of the state. This subspecies was also likely extirpated by over-hunting

A bit more about the wood bison….

Courtesy of ADF&G

Climate change was not really on Joe Public’s radar twenty years ago when wildlife biologists with the Alaska Department of Fish & Game first thought about returning the largest land animal in the Western Hemisphere to its ancestral range in Alaska.  Based on historical information and both paleontological and archaeological data, biologists determined that, indeed, the wood bison once existed in Alaska.

Bigger than the plains bison–the wood bison–the lesser known of the two subspecies of American bison, reaches a size of 2200 lbs.  They dwarf the giant Kodiak bears of the three-island archipelago south of Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula and they certainly dwarf people.

It is a massive beast by anyone’s standards. But reintroducing the animals to the Frontier State after a 100-year absence is no small feat and their return means much more than just restoring a single species to the landscape.  The release of the wood bison, now being held at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center (AWCC) in Portage, Alaska until the first release date in 2014, will return a keystone grazing herbivore, flagship species and icon to the Interior of Alaska after they were extirpated from the region. Mike Miller, the executive director of the AWCC and a veteran rancher and expert on both plains and wood bison said, “This opportunity offers Alaskans a chance to undo a wrong, and restore another subspecies that was heavily exploited by man.”

Their comeback will help buffer climate change if their scat doesn’t do it first. That’s because bison chips are miniature ecosystems all unto themselves. These microhabitats promote biodiversity by attracting microfauna.

This behemoths move across the landscape and similar to a rototiller they turn the solid soil of the Earth—shaping their environment and enriching the nutrient poor substrate of wild lands.

While bison selectively graze on grasses and sedges, altering the floral characteristics of their habitat and allowing less dominant species to grow, bison dung provides refuge and other resources for an array of invertebrate fauna.  And when the bison aren’t eating or defecating which is fairly rare, they might be found rolling around on the ground. These dust rolls help them keep cool, deter insect pests and help remove parasites.

While rolling around in the dirt, the bison create massive depressions called wallows in the Earth. Some fill with water and attract small mammals and birds. Others provide partial refuge for fossorial species. These wallows essentially provide habitat for macrofauna.

It wasn’t until I slipped on bison dung and threw out my back that I realized that bison chips were truly formidable obstacles out on pasture.  They increase biodiversity, but they also present quite a hazard to man.  But meadow muffins, as bison dung is often called, serve a more immediate purpose.  The scat can be used as fuel, as it is a wonderful source of methane. It is also a source of heat and a renewable source of electricity–not to mention a reliable insect repellant.

When the wood bison return to Alaska, they will not only balance an ecosystem, but they will ultimately provide a source of food for subsistence and recreational hunters.  They will enhance the economy, but perhaps most importantly they will be a testament for conservationists–restoring both a majestic species and a wilderness to an earlier era.