The Bison of British Columbia

I’m currently in Colorado, having driven over the past couple of weeks, from my home in Fairbanks. At times, the whole venture seemed a bit ill-advised. We left Fairbanks in the darkness of the early morning, and a dusting of fresh snow coated about everything. By the time we approached the border with the Yukon in early afternoon, we were driving across a snow-covered road with only a smattering of tire tracks to disturb the white. Once over the border, on the long stretch between Beaver Creek and Burwash Landing, we passed only one car in 125 miles.

The following day, we drove from Whitehorse, YT to Muncho Lake in northern BC. Snow had fallen overnight and we creeped down the Alaska Highway, dodging snow plows and dreaming of clear pavement. Around dusk, the road veered south and wildlife, not road conditions became our primary concern. We spotted a huge bull bison, standing statue-like on the wide, mowed verge. We slowed, watching the beast whose only sign of life was a slow-motion chewing of cud. The road was decent, but in the failing light, the fear of smacking one of those monsters kept me driving at a moderate speed. As dusk fell, with just a hint of blue light left filtering across the landscape we started to see tracks in the road-shoulder snow. I slowed. More tracks and more, until we passed through a herd of bison, standing just feet off the road. Their dark shoulders rose like domes out of the blue-tinted snow. In the headlights, their misty breath rose in small clouds from the herd. There must have been 70 animals, but in the near-darkness we felt surrounded.

(Amy recorded this smaller herd on her phone as we drove past before dark)

In Alaska, there are at least three herds of bison. The one that roams the tundra and forest flats south of Delta Junction are the most frequently observed, and the only ones that occur along the road system. These like another herd along the Iditarod Trail are Plains Bison introduced to the state decades ago. Wood Bison, the second subspecies, was extirpated from Alaska, and has been absent from the state until the last few years when a small herd was reintroduced in Innoko National Wildlife Refuge.

To call the history of bison in North America a mixed bag would be very kind. Really, it’s been a disaster. As some may know, there used to be 30 million wild bison on our continent. The species ranged from northern Mexico all the way up to Alaska. In the process of western expansion, humans all but wiped them out. Down to a handful of wild Plains Bison in what is now Yellowstone National Park, and few wild Wood Bison in Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Canada, the species was all but extinct.

Perhaps realizing what we had done, efforts were made to save the bison, and they have succeeded, though truly wild animals are still something of a rarity (most of the living bison now occur in captivity on ranches in the Great Plains).

Amy (who several years back worked on a bison project, and has some expertise) and I both assumed that the animals we encountered along the Alaska Highway were similar to the road bison in Alaska. That is to say, introduced Plains Bison.

It turns out we were wrong. As I looked into this, I found out that the herd we encountered near Liard Hot Springs were Wood Bison. According to information I found through Environment British Columbia and Environment Yukon, the last free-roaming, wild Wood Bison in the region were killed in the early 1900s (though another wild herd persisted in what is now Wood Buffalo National Park, Northwest Territories).

The animals along the highway were some of the few truly wild bison remaining in North America. Though these, like almost all other bison, were reintroduced. The history of these animals is similar to the recently reintroduced Wood Bison in Alaska. Their ancestors were part of the few remaining animals in the Northwest Territories. In 1965, forty were captured and brought to Elk Island National Park in Alberta, which has become a hub for the preservation of both Wood and Plains Bison. Left in semi-captivity to reproduce, some were taken back to Wood Buffalo National Park where they inadvertently introduced the diseases brucellosis and tuberculosis to the wild population (a problem that still persists).

In the 1990s disease-free animals were transferred in a series of reintroductions to northern British Columbia. The first group of Wood Bison, about 40, were released but wandered south and stumbled into a group of Plains Bison that had escaped from a ranch. Trying to avoid interbreeding, all the animals were captured and sold. Eventually they got it right, and now three separate populations of Wood Bison, and one population of Plains Bison (originally escaped captive animals) now roam in British Columbia.

Though the future of bison in North America looks to be one mostly of captivity, it’s nice to know that there are still some wild herds roaming the north. I hope they will persist in the forests and meadows of the boreal; at the very least, they can provide us a taste of what was.