Wood bison leave Portage for release in Alaska wild after an absence of more than 100 years

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The first of 100 wood bison aimed at re-establishing a species that went extinct more than a century ago in Alaska were flown Sunday to a rural village.

Thirty 30 juveniles age 2 or younger were loaded into specially designed "bison boxes," and trucked from the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center in Portage to Anchorage. They made a one-hour flight to Shageluk and arrived at about 1 p.m.

In several weeks, after 70 more wood bison reach Shageluk, and after they've become acclimated, they will be released as a group into the Inoko Flats, one of the areas of Alaska where wood bison once roamed.

Mike Miller, director of the conservation center, which has housed animals imported from Canada since 2008, said restoring an animal to its native habitat is an opportunity that doesn't come often.

"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," he said.

Twenty bulls will be barged to the area this summer.

Wood bison are native to Alaska and Canada. They're North America's largest land mammal and bigger than the plains bison that roamed in Lower 48 states.

Wood bison bulls can weigh more than 2,000 pounds. Cows weigh 800 to 1,200 pounds and the juveniles moved Sunday weigh 280 to 490 pounds.

Staff from the Fish and Game Department and the conservation center spent much of last week practicing for the big moving day. Bison are skittish around people, and with horns and massive weight, are dangerous to people and themselves.

From a pen, the animals were funneled a few at a time into a plywood chute that did not allow them to see humans they passed.

"A human face scares the animals," said biologist Cathie Harms said.

They moved from the wooden chute to an enclosed metal chute, where biologists opened doors for final blood samples and de-worming shots. They were then herded into the bison boxes in groups of five, crowded but separated by doors.

The close conditions were by design. Takeoff from Anchorage, and landing on the short village runway, could bounce the animals around.

"They don't have a lot of room to jostle," Harms said.

The bison in Shageluk will be kept in pens several acres large before release in two or three weeks. They've been eating hay since arriving at the conservation center, but in the wild will eat grasses, sedges and forbs. Bison move to a foraging spot, stay a day or so and move to a new one, Harms said.

"We will try to duplicate that with hay piles leading to sedge fields that should come shooting up about the time the hay runs out," Harms said.

Twenty-five of the 50 cows being moved are pregnant. Wood bison tend to establish a connection to places where they give birth, she said.

The department plans to keep close tabs on the herd for at least two years. All animals released will either have a radio collar that can be tracked from the air or a satellite collar that can be tracked from a biologist's office.

"We're going to watch them very, very closely for two years to find out what direction they go," she said.

When the herd reaches 300 to 400 animals, hunting could begin, said David James, the Fairbanks regional supervisor. The bison plan calls for no hunting until at least 20 animals can be harvested, with one each reserved for each of four nearby villages.

Hunting also will be planned so as to not stop herd growth, James said.