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Bison in the Yukon & Alaska

by Murray Lundberg

(Click on the photos to enlarge them)

Bison along the Alaska Highway near Champagne, Yukon Territory       When you think of the large mammals that are found in the Yukon and Alaska, is the bison on your list? Probably not - the presence of bison in the North isn't widely known, despite the fact that they have been here for most of the last 2 million years.

      Steppe Bison arrived in North America from Asia over the Bering land bridge. Slightly larger than modern bison, and with large horns, they were replaced by the modern bison about 4,000-5,000 years ago. Fossil remains show that the modern bison were very successful until about 500 years ago, when a changing climate resulted in their disappearance from the North.

      When the first game laws were enacted in the Yukon, bison were the only animals listed as having no open season for hunting. This may have been the result of unconfirmed rumours of the presence of bison, as I have been unable to find a single report of a bison sighting in the Yukon before 1951.

      In 1928, a group of Fairbanks citizens, headed by Game Warden Frank Dufresne, were successful in obtaining 23 Plains Bison from the National Bison Range at Moiese, Montana to start a breeding herd in Alaska. Intended as a hunting resource for the Fairbanks group, it was originally planned to release the bison near Healy, but at the last minute it was decided that the McCarty (now Big Delta) district was more suitable. An abundance of wild grasses and pea vines, with only a couple of dozen scattered trappers' cabins, appeared to make conditions ideal for the transplant.

      Modern bison, standing up to 6 feet at the shoulders and weighing up to 2,600 pounds, are extremely hardy animals, able to stand long periods of poor grazing. Wolves are their main predator. They usually travel in small family groups, a bull and a few cows (which also have horns) and their calves. Following a 9-month gestation, the cinnamon-colored calves, weighing 25-40 pounds (11-18 kilos), are dropped in May or June, just in time for the new grasses which are sprouting.

Bison along the Alaska Highway near Champagne, Yukon Territory       The Delta herd thrived, increasing to about 500 animals by the late 1940s. As the bison population was growing, however, so was the human population; the opening of Fort Greely eventually brought several thousand people to the area that the bison found so appealing. The number of bison dropped for a few years, at least partially as a result of the ever-decreasing grazing left after the construction of runways, highways and homes. Conflicts were becoming severe by the 1950s - one farmer had a 60-acre field of alfalfa destroyed by grazing bison in one night! At Fort Greely, "the military spent upwards of half a million dollars to landscape the grounds on the fort. No sooner had the grass put in an appearance than so did the bison. Every blade of grass was eaten (Harmon). By 1960, bison were starving, rooting at the garbage dumps and dying from eating plastic, and cuts from glass and metal.

      Although they are generally peaceful animals, for several years in the 1950s, a particularly obnoxious bull named "Old Joe" by Delta Junction area residents, gained quite a reputation for attacking vehicles, crumpling fenders and doors and just generally being a nuisance (Harmon). In the depth of winter, bison would often lean against trailers and cabins to get some of the building's warmth - the resulting "earthquake" in the night could apparently be quite unnerving.

      Through this period, the bison were still protected - the Fish and Game Department generally didn't feel that the herd was strong enough to stand any hunting. The exception occurred in 1950 through 1952, at a time when the herd's population was already dropping rapidly, when 25 hunting permits were issued each year. In 1950, 17 animals were also moved to a new range near Slana, on the Glenn Highway. By the late 1950s and '60s, requests for funding to feed the starving bison were being received and turned down, but the 90,000- acre Delta Junction Bison Range was created in 1979 in response to the problem. The project has been very successful, with the enhancement of grazing areas away from farmers' fields being the primary aim.

      In February 1945, the Yukon Fish and Game Association was formed, and they immediately started lobbying the government to improve hunting. In a very short time this group, composed largely of people new to the Yukon, would become the Territory's most powerful political lobby group, and among their objectives were the importation of bison, elk and mule deer to areas which would allow easy road access to them. In 1951, 5 bison and 19 elk were released 50 miles west of Whitehorse; with the assistance of a strong wolf poisoning program in the area, the elk survived, but the bison appear to have all died by 1973. An interesting note to this experiment is that Renewable Resources staff today never admit that it occurred.

      Another bison introduction was attempted in Alaska in 1955, when 5 animals were released on Popoff Island, just east of the tip of the Alaska Peninsula. The last report I've found on this herd is from 1961, when there were still 5 bison there (the same number, but with 2 new calves to replace deaths).

Bison along the Alaska Highway near Champagne, Yukon Territory       In 1980, the Yukon government started studying re-introduction of bison to the territory, and in 1986, the first shipment of 34 Wood Bison arrived from Alberta's Elk Island herd, which had originated in Wood Buffalo National Park. This is one of the few pure Wood Bison herds in the world, as most have been allowed to interbreed with Plains Bison. Over the next 4 years, another 136 bison were released, and the herd has now grown to about 1,200 (2014 estimate).

      Bison from this herd became a fairly serious problem on the Alaska Highway - I clearly remember trying to stop my bus at 4:00AM on a frosty morning when a herd of 6 bison suddenly appeared in a dip in the road! A wide variety of solutions was attempted, from trucking them into remote areas to hiring a man to drive along the highway firing off noisemakers to scare them away - all were only temporarily successful. As a result of many complaints, and the deaths of 9 bison who were hit by vehicles, the Yukon government moved the 'offending' herd of 33 animals to a private farm in 1993; they thrived there, and for several years could be seen in the large fields just below the highway, but the farm was closed in 2010.

      Lottery draws for bison hunts in both the Yukon and Alaska bring several hundred applications for each animal allowed. The reason is two-fold; first, the meat is delicious (very similar to top-grade beef), and secondly, a bison has a boned-out carcass weight of 250-700 pounds, even more than moose, which run 250-600 pounds. Currently, 40 permits are issued in Alaska in most years for the Delta herd, in an effort to keep the population at about 275-300 animals (from 6,000-11,000 people usually apply for those 40 permits!) The peak year was 1996, when 18,000 hunters applied for the 120 permits issued. In the Yukon, 1998 was the first year for bison hunting - only 5 permits were issued the first year, but even with a total of 700 now taken by hunters (2014) the herd is growing faster than hunters and wolves can control.

      Despite game managers' efforts to keep bison away from highways, the grasses on the highway shoulders are irresistible to bison - for travelers, the best places to see bison now are south of Delta Junction on the Richardson Highway, and between Watson Lake and Liard Hot Springs on the Alaska Highway.


References & Further Reading:

  • Lewis D. Harmon - "The Plight of the Bison," in Alaska Sportsman, November 1961

  • Peter Matthiessen - Wildlife in America (New York: Penguin, 1995)

  • Robert G. McCandless - Yukon Wildlife: A Social History (Edmonton, AB: University of Alberta Press, 1985)

    Photographs are © 1991-2014 by Murray Lundberg

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