Biologists take the pulse of Yukon’s bison population

The Yukon’s wild wood bison population is looking good. Biologist Thomas Jung can’t yet share specifics about the data the Environment…

The Yukon’s wild wood bison population is looking good.

Biologist Thomas Jung can’t yet share specifics about the data the Environment department discerned on Tuesday when it spot-counted the Aishihik bison herd.

The exact head count needs to be shared with the Champagne-Aishihik First Nations before it’s officially made public.

But the herd looks healthy, so the count must be more than Environment’s ideal target of 500 animals.

“We don’t think the herd’s in any trouble, but no means,” Jung said Thursday.

“In fact the herd is doing very well. It has been, ever since it’s been out there.

“It’s probably the best success story for bison reintroduction in North America, if not globally.”

The wood bison is an indigenous species to the Yukon but it died off for unknown reasons well before European settlers moved into the Yukon and Alaska, said Jung.

There are different hypotheses within the scientific community that try to explain the bison’s extinction from this part of the world.

Climate change, when grasslands turned into forests, was possibly a factor, said Jung.

Hunting is another possibility, although it’s less likely than climate change, he said.

“There may have been diseases that finished them off. But there are reports from the 1930s from southeast Yukon and northeastern British Columbia of the wood bison still being around.”

Before they were reintroduced, the bison hadn’t lived in the Aishihik area for at least 200 years, he said.

The Yukon commenced a reintroduction program in 1982, bringing 142 wood bison north from a Toronto zoo, a private farm near Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, and Elk Island National Park in Alberta.

Biologists released 171 animals near Aishihik between 1988 and 1992.

“Some of them had calves when they were being held,” said Jung.

The population is relatively confined, ranging along the Alaska Highway corridor between Kluane Lake and the Klondike Highway.

“It’s a big area, where they range, but in the big picture it’s relatively small, about 9,000 square kilometres,” said Jung.

There are two other bison populations that occasionally step into the Yukon, he added.

The Nordquist herd in northwestern BC lives around Muncho Lake, but occasionally ranges farther north.

It was reintroduced in 1992.

And the Nahanni herd lives primarily around Fort Liard in the Northwest Territories.

The Yukon government keeps closest tabs on the Aishihik herd, counting them on a regular basis.

“It’s not rocket science, per se. We fly over areas where we believe the bison will be, based on our surveys from other years and reports from people out on the land,” said Jung.

Some animals are fitted with radio collars.

“We count the number of collars that we see, and then we can make some extrapolations based on the number of collars that we’ve seen versus the number of collars that we know are out there, to get some idea of the number of animals that we’ve missed.”

The last full bison head count was conducted in 2003.

“Generally with these type of surveys, they can take many days to cover the area that you need to cover,” said Jung.

“We thought we’d try a different approach this time, with lots of eyes there and to do it all in one, so not to disturb the animals or the hunters that are out there this time of year.”

There are two annual Yukon bison hunts, one through December and January, and another immediately following through February and March.

About 40 animals have been harvested so far this year.

There’s also a private bison farm in the Yukon, owned by Cliff and Virginia LaPrairie.

Their animals are derived from the same stock as the Aishihik herd, said Jung.

“Thirty-six bison were spending time on the Alaska Highway, creating concern for motorists, so those animals were transferred to the LaPrairie folks,” he said.

“From time to time, we share information about health status.”