- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 25, 2006

YAKUTSK, Russia — After an absence of more than 5,000 years, the thunder of bison hooves will soon be heard once again in the vast tundra of northeastern Siberia, thanks to the persistence of wildlife conservationists in this remote corner of Russia.

After nearly a decade of trying, biologists in the Russian Republic of Sakha have obtained 30 wood bison that they plan to release into the wild next year.

The wood bison, a larger relative of the more common plains bison that can weigh nearly 2,000 pounds, is the closest living species to the bison that died out in Siberia. The government of Sakha obtained the hairy beasts from the Bison Recovery Project in northern Canada, which donated the animals for free.

“Before they died out here thousands of years ago, the bison crossed over the Bering Straight to North America and settled there. In a way, it’s like they’re coming home,” said Vasily Tikhonov, a biologist with Sakha’s Ministry of Nature Protection.

The animals — 15 females and 15 males — were flown from Edmonton, Alberta, on April 7 to Yakutsk, the capital of Sakha, a vast region of northeastern Russia five times the size of France. They are now living in a pen in Sakha’s Lensky-Stolby National Park. The bison will be kept in quarantine for about a year before most will be released into the Orto-Saalaa nature preserve in northern Sakha. A handful will be kept at Lensky-Stolby, a two-hour’s drive from the capital over the frozen Lena River, for breeding and research purposes.

Sakha, an isolated region of about 1 million people, is one of the coldest inhabited places on Earth. Almost half of it is within the Arctic Circle, and winter temperatures regularly fall below -58 degrees Fahrenheit and can reach below -90 F in the north. About 30 percent of its people are ethnic Yakuts, a Turkic Asian people related to the Kazakhs and Kyrgyz.

The region is also rich in mineral wealth, supplying almost a quarter of the world’s rough diamonds and containing 20 percent of Russia’s gold reserves. It was that wealth that eventually allowed the bison to return.

Scientists in Sakha in 1997 approached the Wood Bison Recovery Project at Elk Island National Park in northern Alberta to ask for assistance.

Canada has led the way in wood bison preservation efforts, and in 1987 the species was upgraded from “endangered” to “threatened,” thanks to a number of successful recovery projects. There are now more than 9,000 wood bison in North America.

The project to return them to Siberia, however, was complicated by the issue of transporting the bison. Estimates for the cost of flying them from Canada to Sakha ranged from $150,000 to $300,000. With neither side willing to cover the transportation expense, the project languished until last year, when Sakha’s president, Vyacheslav Shtyrov, a former chief executive of Alrosa, the company that controls diamond mining in the republic, convinced the company to provide one its enormous Ilyushin cargo planes to ship the animals.

Russia does not have a stellar reputation for animal conservation and in recent years international preservation groups have raised concerns over poaching of endangered species, such as the Siberian tiger, and overfishing of Caspian sturgeon, prized for their caviar.

But Minister of Nature Protection Vladimir Grigoryev said a team of park rangers will be monitoring the bison once they are released into the wild to protect them from predators and watch for illnesses.

In the long run, Mr. Grigoryev said, the goal is to reintroduce as much of the region’s Ice Age fauna as possible, perhaps even the extinct woolly mammoth, which died out here 13,000 years ago. Sakha is famed for its mammoth carcasses, many of which have been found nearly perfectly preserved in its permafrost.

“There are Japanese scientists working on ways to clone the mammoth from remains found in our republic,” he said. “So who knows? Maybe some day.”

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