It’s hard to imagine anything surviving in the harsh terrain of Siberia, but the wood bison sent from Canada’s Elk Island are thriving. Read on to learn more about this tough animal and the conservation plan to reintroduce the species to Russia. — Global Animal
Montreal Gazzette, Ryan Cormier
ELK ISLAND NATIONAL PARK — Next month, 30 young bison will catch a 10-hour flight from mild Alberta to roam one of the coldest corners of the planet.
As part of a conservation partnership with Russia, the animals will be flown to the Republic of Sakha, a huge, mountainous swath of Siberian land where the Communist party used to exile its opponents and temperatures can plummet to -60 C.
It is the second stage of the project, after 30 wood bison were sent to Sakha in 2006 to reproduce and replace Russia’s indigenous bison, which have been extinct for decades.
“We had our doubts, and there were surely some concerns, about how these animals would adapt in Sakha, given that the climate is much more severe than in Canada,” said Vladimir Gregoriev, Sakha’s minister of nature protection, through a translator. “The winter is long and very, very cold. We have three months of summer and the rest is winter.”
Edmonton sits at the southern border of the natural habitat of the threatened species.
The first herd of wood bison thrived in Sakha’s protected lands, producing 21 calves in five years. The second herd, 15 males and 15 females, is expected to raise the population while not exposing the animals to inbreeding. However, they first have to get to the Lenskie Stolby Nature Park.
At Elk Island National Park, east of Edmonton, the animals have already been penned separate from other animals. They will be tested for diseases such as tuberculosis this week, then held in quarantine for a month. The calves, roughly nine months old and waist-high, weigh anywhere from 350 to 500 pounds.
They will be loaded into three horse trailers, 10 animals each, that are modified with water pipes and have had any sharp edges or partitions removed.
“We’ll make sure they will be able to lie down, stand up, turn around and everything they need to,” said Darcia Nakonechuy, a veterinarian with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. “Bison are shockingly good at being transported. The animals are very adaptable.”
Adult bison are not considered for the program because no one wants 15 grown males, at 2,100 pounds each, becoming territorial or frisky on an overseas flight. Younger animals are calmer and less likely to injure themselves.
The trailers will be driven to the Edmonton International Airport, then loaded onto a Ilyushin-76, a cavernous Russian transport plane that has its own crane and was made to transport military equipment. Two Canadian veterinarians will be on the plane, and can adjust temperature, food and water levels or air circulation, Nakonechuy said.
The bison will fly for 10 hours, then be transported by ground for several more to reach the protected park that will be their new home. In roughly two years, they will begin to reproduce.
Greg Wilson, a biologist with the Canadian Wildlife Service, thinks the second herd will complete the introduction of bison back into Sakha and Russia as a whole.
“I would think this would be all they need if they already have 21 calves,” he said. “In Canada, the wood bison do very well. The main barrier to them is places to put them.”
Elk Island has already distributed 1,000 wood bison, and the same number of plains bison, around the world for conservation programs. Bison first came to the park from a Montana rancher in 1907.
“Since its creation in 1906, Elk Island has played an important role in the conservation and survival of several species, such as bison and elk,” said Leon Benoit, MP for Vegreville-Wainwright. “We are contributing to the continued survival and well-being of an iconic and truly majestic animal that was once on the brink of extinction.”
Gregoriev said the Russian goals of the project are to increase bison numbers, encourage bio-diversity and to teach schoolchildren about the species itself and the wider concept of wildlife conservation.
The bison are expected to leave Canada on March 15.
There are about 400 wood bison in Elk Island National Park.