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Wood Bison to Return to Alaskan Wilderness

Aug 08, 2014 02:53 PM EDT

After disappearing from Alaska more than a century ago, wood bison are soon to return to the wilderness of the Last Frontier, according to officials.

KTVA reports the state will reintroduce between 50-100 animals next spring near the Lower Yukon and the Innoko River - an area selected for its prime habitat and strong local support, according to the governor's office.

The re-introduction initiative, conducted by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, will set loose animals from the captive herd at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center.

Wood bison are the largest living land mammal in North America. According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), the average weight of mature bulls is about one ton, or 2,000 pounds. Smaller plains bison were not native to Alaska but were introduced to the state in 1928.

Fossil carbon dating and Alaska Native folklore indicate wood bison were present in Alaska for 10,000 years, The Associated Press reports, but for reasons unknown, they vanished about a century ago.

Wood bison were listed as endangered under the 1969 Endangered Species Act (ESA), says the FWS, until 2012, when their status was changed to threatened. During the early 1800s, wood bison numbers were estimated at 168,000 in Canada, but by the late 1800s, the subspecies was nearly eliminated with only a few hundred remaining.

Experts suspect disease and loss of habitat, primarily from agricultural activities, including the production of plains bison, are responsible for the decline of the wood bison population.

Alaska Wildlife Conservation has been caring for wood bison since 2003, when 13 animals were transferred to the facility. In 2008, an additional 53 disease-free wood bison were imported to the facility from Canada.

The Department of Fish and Game has been working on restoring wood bison to their rightful habitat for the last 20 years.

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