More than a century ago, the thundering hooves of wood bison could be heard all around interior and southcentral Alaska. Now the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center is working to reintroduce the species into their once native lands. The aim is to have some of the bison running wild by 2015.
Until then, the center feeds the animals and cycles them through fields on their property in Portage. Sarah Howard works at the center, feeding the animals and helping herd them. She points out a particularly big bull with a large hump on his back. "There's a big guy in here. I notice him all the time right away and he tends to be the leader of the pack."
Such big animals are dangerous, which is why it's safer and more efficient to herd them by snow machine. Until this week, the center used 1996 Polaris models to do the job. Operations Director Nick Yeager put it politely, "they saw many years of service and like a lot of us, they got old and tired."
The executive director, Mike Miller, approached Nick Olzenak with Alaska Mining and Diving Supply about donating snow machines. Ozenak is very familiar with the Portage area, but said he'd never been down to the wildlife center. "I fell in love with the story," Ozenak said. Miller told him about homesteading on the piece of property and the center's work in building up the herd to eventually roam wildly in Alaska. Olzenak contacted Ski Doo and donated three Ski Doo Scandics. The model is fuel efficient and runs more quietly than older snow machines. Olzenak hopes donating the modern model will give visitors a better impression of snow machines.
Howard said for her, it's essential to have a dependable machine, "to be able to get out of the way of a 25-hundred pound bull if you need to."
Yeager said the donation is recognition for the task the center has taken on, "This has been characterized as the most significant wildlife effort anywhere in the country right now." He said the best way to truly understand the project is to visit where you can stand just a few feet away from wood bison, "when you're that far away from an animal tha majestic. It's makes quite an impression."
It's one species helping another to survive.