If you have any issues accessing this website, please call 206.652.1129 between the hours of 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. in the Pacific time zone.

Bringing the Buffalo back home

Back From the Edge of Extinction

By Michael Moore –

Alaska’s wood bison are finally getting a home of their own – after a 100-year absence from central Alaska’s meadows and forests along the Yukon River, the Western Hemisphere’s largest land mammal will once again roam the lower Yukon/Innoko River area next April.

wb_bullDuring the Ice Age, steppe bison – the ancestors of modern bison – migrated to Alaska from Asia, crossing the Bering land corridor.  As the ice sheets advanced and retreated, these migratory animals spread across North America.

Bison evolved into two subspecies, wood bison and plains bison. Wood bison adapted to life in the north, grazing in the meadows and forests of Alaska and Canada. The smaller plains bison thrived farther south and formed the famous buffalo herds of the American Great Plains.

The wood bison is known to science as Bison bison athabascae and the native Alaskan Athabascans as cow in the forest, and the hefty one on the land. Fossil carbon dating and Alaska Native folklore place wood bison in Alaska, particularly the Yukon Flats region north of Fairbanks, for 10,000 years. Athabascan oral history describes how these massive mammals, weighing up to 2,000 pounds, were hunted in Interior Alaska with spears, snowshoes, and bow and arrow for hides and meat.

The wood bison lived in Alaska for most of the last 5,000 to 10,000 years but disappeared by the early 1900s. Their disappearance was probably caused by unregulated hunting and changes in habitat distribution.

Wood bison were thought to be extinct in Canada at the close of the 19th century, until a small herd was discovered in a remote part of Alberta, Canada. Today there are approximately 5,000 healthy wood bison in several herds in Northwest Territories, Yukon, British Columbia, Alberta and Manitoba.

woodbison_largemapThe Alaska Department of Fish and Game has been working to restore wood bison to Alaska for more than 20 years, with a captive herd of about 151 animals being held at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center near Portage.

Supporting the project has been a community effort – an effort in which Totem Ocean Trailer Express and Carlile Transportation have played critical roles.

Totem Ocean came to the wood bison’s rescue in 2013. That year began with the longest winter on record, and gave way to one of the greatest droughts in recent Alaskan history. The heat and dry spell resulted in the worst growing year ever recorded for Alaska.

Alaskan grown hay ran out in 2013 – with the heat & dry spell it was the worst growing year ever recorded. The Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center learned quickly how expensive it is to import hay from the lower 48. Totem Ocean stepped up and provided passage from Washington for the supply of 250 tons premium hay. The 151 bison currently at the Center eat between three and five bales of hay every day. That rescue effort has continued into 2014, which started out nearly as dry as 2013 – forest fires decimated a reported 200,000 acres in one local area.

Carlile Transportation has also been helping the restoration effort for six years by supplying all of the trucking needs of hay for the wood bison as well as building materials at no cost to the Center.

“Harry McDonald came up with this idea for hauling hay,” said Carlile driver Doyle Bartel. “It’s awesome. I get to help reintroduce a species that was thought to be extinct.” McDonald, a co-founder of Carlile Transportation, was Carlile’s Chairman and CEO at the time. He is currently the Alaska Director for Saltchuk, which purchased Carlile in 2012.

Read People of Saltchuk feature on Carlile Driver Doyle Bartel
Read People of Saltchuk feature on Carlile Driver Doyle Bartel

“When I come with the hay, they all come up to the fence,” said Bartel. “They can smell it. Weather-wise, the trip is challenging, especially in the winter. It can be pretty nasty, or it can be pretty beautiful.” Bartel began driving for Carlile Transportation more than 20 years ago, never anticipating that his most frequent and demanding clientele would weigh in at more than 2,000 pounds.

Meanwhile, the wood bison’s long journey back to its old stomping grounds in the meadows and forests of central Alaska’s Yukon River is nearly over. On May 6th, 2014, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service published a rule clearing the way to reintroduce the once extinct wood bison into their historic range in Alaska. And the hay from Washington, made possible by TOTE and Carlile Transportation, will see the bison to the finish line.

“It is remarkable to see the support of the wood bison restoration project, as it would be nothing without the collaborative efforts of our supporters,” said AWCC Executive Director, Mike Miller.

Grace Greene, Alaska General Manager for TOTE Maritime Alaska shared that sentiment, “I was also impressed with the amount of contributions made by other generous companies and individuals – these contributions are so important for making Alaska a great place to live, work and play.”