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Herd of Alaska wood bison finds new home in the wild

In Alaska, wood bison are roaming free on U.S. soil for the first time in 200 years

In Alaska’s frozen bush, wood bison are roaming free on U.S. soil for the first time in 200 years.

A herd of 100 wood bison, the largest land mammal in North America, were recently reintroduced into the wild.

The wood bison, a larger cousin to the American Plains bison, was used by Athabascan natives for clothing, food and shelter. But by the early 1800s, the mammals had disappeared from Alaska.

“I don’t use the words very commonly, but it was a very awe-inspiring event,” said Cathie Harms, a spokeswoman for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. “It was just wonderful.”

The herd, in captivity at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center south of Anchorage, had grown in size during the last 12 years as experts planned for the animals’ release.

On a frigid April 3 morning, their nostrils blowing steam, the bison did exactly what they had been trained to do: They followed a snowmobile into the wild as shown in the video above. While in captivity, that snowmobile had led the bison to food.

Astride the snowmobile, Tom Seaton, a wildlife biologist for the state of Alaska, led the way through the wilderness.

“They cut the umbilical cord, as it were, fairly quick,” Seaton said from Shageluk, a remote village about 300 miles from Anchorage.

“They’re bedding and feeding and all the things they should do just fine,” Seaton said of the bison, which remain on the U.S. government’s list of threatened species.

The wood bison were so eager to chow down on the native sedge grass that they ignored the bales of hay that had been put out for them, he said.

“They pretty much thumbed their noses at all our extra feed ... and just went to the native vegetation immediately,” Seaton said. “It was pretty amazing.”

About 50 of the giant critters -- adult males can weigh 2,000 pounds -- remain behind at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center near Portage, where they can be viewed year round.

Winter hours at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center are 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Beginning May 9, the hours are 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Admission is $12.50 for adults and $9 for children 4-12.

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