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When considering what large animals you might spot traveling through northern British Columbia, the Yukon or Alaska, chances are good that buffalo don’t immediately spring to mind, in spite of the fact they’ve been here since the Ice Ages, when Steppe Bison crossed the Bering land corridor from Asia to North America. Larger than modern buffalo with much longer horns, these giant herbivores shared the prehistoric tundra with wild horses, wooly mammoths and western camels. Migrating across North America, buffalo evolved into the two subspecies of Wood and Plains Bison as the giant longhorn Steppe Bison became extinct. Wood Bison adapted to life in the north, grazing in the meadows and forests of Alaska and Canada. The smaller Plains Bison thrived farther south, forming the buffalo herds of the American Great Plains.
Although Wood Bison can still be found in Canada, only re-introduced Plains Bison now live in Alaska. A wild herd of about 400 free-ranges near Delta Junction in Alaska’s interior. Descended from 23 Plains Bison obtained from Montana in 1928, the herd increased steadily to about 500 members in the late 1940s. Emigration and transplants created additional herds at Copper River, Chitina River and near Farewell. The Delta Junction Bison Range is a 90,000-acre tract of public land established in 1979 to ensure adequate winter range for the animals and to limit damage to adjacent farms. During calving season between late April and early June, the herd moves a few dozen miles southwest from the Range to gravel bars on the Delta River. The bison summer along the river and can be seen on the gravel bars from several viewpoints along the Richardson Highway.
After studying the feasibility of re-introducing buffalo to Yukon Territory, the first shipment of 34 Wood Bison arrived in 1986 from Alberta's Elk Island herd, which had originated in Wood Buffalo National Park. When bison from this group became a fairly serious problem on the Alaska Highway, various solutions were attempted, from trucking them into remote areas to hiring a man to drive along the highway firing off noisemakers to scare them away. In 1993, the Yukon government eventually moved some of the animals to private lands just below the highway west of Whitehorse.
Forty-nine Wood Bison were relocated to the Liard River area of northern British Columbia in 1995, where they can be seen along the Alaska Highway. Despite efforts to keep bison away from Northern highways, the grasses along the shoulders are irresistible and those “Caution Buffalo on Road” signs are for real!