After millennia, bison roam Siberia again

An unusual export from Canada ends a 10,000-year bison drought

Home, sweet home

Photo by Andrey Mukhoplev

In the spring of 2006, wildlife biologists with the Canadian government loaded 30 wood bison calves, 15 males and 15 females, into three modified horse trailers and drove them from Elk Island National Park, in Alberta, to Edmonton International Airport an hour away. There they watched as a crane extended from the bowels of an Ilyushin Il-76, the Russian counterpart to the Lockheed Hercules, and collected the trailers one by one from the tarmac. During the 15-hour flight that followed, the Il-76 was kept a cool 10° C; wood bison grow uncomfortable in heat.

When they reached Yakutsk, capital of the Republic of Sakha—located in northeast Siberia and also called Yakutia—then-president Vyacheslav Shtyrov greeted the wood bison with a retinue of ministers. Alongside him, a crowd of some 200 Yakutians, many in traditional garb, performed dances and serenaded the herd with toyuk—a blessing song. To the visiting Canadians they offered raw horse liver and wood goblets filled with kumis, an alcoholic beverage made from fermented mare’s milk. Sakha newspapers later delighted in running photographs of one Canadian, mid-sip, visibly distressed by the taste of the milk.

Despite the pomp, few in Sakha had ever seen bison, which haven’t lived in Siberia since the steppe bison, an animal twice the wood bison’s size, died out 10,000 years ago. If the Yakutians celebrated the herd’s arrival, Parks Canada employees simply fretted over the transfer. Wood bison, at upwards of 900 kg, are the largest land mammal in North America, and are classified as a threatened species. Yet, five years on, their foray into Siberia has proven a success: the animals, who live on a wildlife preserve, began reproducing a year after their arrival, earlier than expected, and have grown larger than their Alberta cousins thanks, it’s thought, to the Sakha cold.

Those ceremonies, complete with raw liver and mare’s milk, are due to be repeated in March, when Canada will send another 30 wood bison to Sakha. For Yakutians, the animals are something like long-lost relatives. “There is a realization that this big creature used to roam there and they’re committed to putting it back,” says Norm Cool, a Parks Canada wildlife biologist who worked on the transfer. A combination of hunting and climate change likely led to the extinction of steppe bison millennia ago, and the lives of Yakutians came to centre, nutritionally and spiritually, around the Yakutian horse—a strong, thickly furred creature the size of a Shetland pony. “The Yakut, like the Cossack, lives on horseback,” as a New York Times writer put it almost a hundred years ago.

Today, even the slightest connection between the Yakutian horse and Canadian wood bison is enough to bind the two inside the Sakha imagination. As Sergey Zimov, a scientist who runs the Northeast Science Station, a 4½-hour flight from Yakutsk, puts it: “It’s easy for scientists to explain to the Yakutian people that in the wild, horses never lived alone. Horses always lived with bison—there’s a strong ecological connection, a symbiosis.” That kind of appeal taps into the nostalgia of a people whose country is changing fast. With its days as a gulag for Russian exiles largely over, the Republic of Sakha now has much to recommend it. It is the world’s No. 2 supplier of diamonds—Russia’s state-run Alrosa diamond concern supplied the Il-76 that flew the bison to Yakutsk—as well as gold, silver, oil and natural gas.

Yet Sakha is also becoming a hot spot for a controversial approach to conservation, called “re-wilding,” that seeks to repopulate some lands with extinct or extirpated animals. “Most conservationists are suspicious of introducing new animals to areas of conservation concern because people have had such a bad history doing so,” says Terry Chapin, an ecologist at the University of Alaska who has visited Zimov’s Pleistocene Park, a 160-sq.-km preserve where Zimov is attempting to recreate the Pleistocene era by reintroducing a menagerie of grazers—horses, muskox, moose and reindeer—because he believes their impact on the landscape forms part of the answer to why, 10,000 years ago, Siberia was an expanse of grassland. These herds, Zimov argues (he plans to add carnivores like Siberian tigers and wolves), could help curb climate change by turning the tundra into a sort of Arctic savannah better equipped to store carbon.

Wood bison may well become part of his experiment—but not the Canadian ones, which were destined for Zimov’s park before the Yakutian government chose to establish its own, competing re-wilding program. That experiment will likely mingle our wood bison with Siberian brown bears and wolves in a wilderness that otherwise so much resembles northern Alberta that they may never realize they’re not in Canada anymore.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.