INTO THE WILD
Would you like to feed the bears?
Always know the situation and trust the person asking you if you’re ever confronted with this decision. Ensure you are not the intended meal.
Alaska: the last frontier. A vast state still teeming with wildlife, immense forests, imposing mountain ranges, and a dearth of roads. Much of the state is inaccessible by vehicle, and seemingly inaccessible full stop. A land of summer days that last months, and winter nights that last just as long. It can feel untamable at times. A place not fit for man, just beasts.
But look a little closer and you’ll see that humans have had their predictable impact on this land. Cities like Fairbanks and Anchorage are facsimiles of Everytown USA in the lower 48 states; complete with malls, restaurants, and all the accoutrements of modern life.
Venture out further and our impact is often noticeable by what’s missing. Muskoxen and wood bison used to roam these lands just like the bears, caribou, and moose that still maintain at least a foothold in Alaska. By the early 1900s, both animals were considered extinct from Alaska because of over-hunting and loss of habitat. This is why we can’t have nice things.
About an hour outside of Anchorage, surrounded by the Chugach National Forest and its many glaciers and mountains, the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center (AWCC) is a major tourist draw. A place where you can see much of Alaska’s wildlife up close, it serves as an education and outreach organization, and a refuge for orphaned and injured animals. It’s also helping bring the wood bison back to Alaska.
Once thought to be completely extinct, a small herd of wood bison was discovered in Canada in the 1950s. Recognizing the value of this find, our friends up north began a conservation effort to save the bison. Progress was slow, but steady, and now Canada has a healthy and increasing wood bison population.
Seeing the success of Canada, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game made the commitment over 20 years ago to return wood bison to their native range in Central-Alaska in partnership with the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, which currently cares for the only captive herd in the United States. They started by buying some from Canada, I assume tariff free. Over the years, through careful management and successful breeding, the AWCC developed a healthy captive herd, a few hundred strong.
However, in the United States, which is typically late to the party when it comes to most things that don’t involve making money, it took until May of 2014 to have an opportunity to finally take tangible and restorative action, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published a final rule allowing the reintroduction of a "non-essential experimental" population of wood bison into three areas of Alaska. As if any part of nature is non-essential.
As a result, 130 wood bison from the AWCC were successfully released into the wild in the spring of 2015. Their numbers are growing in the wild, and the AWCC continues to breed more for future release.
With a cool breeze and gentle fog as our constant companions, we felt lucky to spend a day volunteering with the AWCC. Surrounded by animals, excited tourists, and caring and proud employees, we pitched in where we could, and even helped answer (hopefully correctly) visitor questions, as they assumed we were employees.
After we wrapped up our work, we were doing a quick final walk through the facility so Tara could get a final animal fix, when a small utility vehicle pulled up and a woman said, "Thanks for helping out today. Would you like to feed the bears?" Feeling relatively certain that we were not the intended meal, since the bear feeding is done publicly with hundreds of people looking on, we said yes.
A week later, while driving through Canada on our way back from Alaska, we noticed traffic coming to a stop ahead, which is rare on these sparsely used roads. As we advanced, the reason became evident. A herd of wood bison was making its way along the road. The Canadian relatives of the Alaskan herd. Proof of the possibility of success.
Maybe we can have nice things after all.