Reviving the Russian Bison

PHOTO by Yury Vasiliev / Lenta.ru
Once considered all but extinct, bison are returning to Russia: report from a Yakutian bison nursery

If everything goes according to plan, this autumn bison, which were previously considered extinct in Eurasia, will roam the plains of Russia. Lenta.ru visited the continent’s only bison nursery – a joint Russian-Canadian project, which has been running for the last ten years in Yakutia (Sakha Republic).

Assisted Survival

Experts are unsure about exactly when bison disappeared from Eurasia, but it was between two to five thousand years ago. Unlike mammoths, the bison were unaffected by the ice age – humans are solely responsible for their extinction.

Andrey Popov, head of the Bioresource Management and Science Department of the Sakha Republic's Ministry of Nature, explains: “We know they lived here in the past. Bison and mammoth remains are regularly found close to the Buotama River, as well as in other areas. Some children once found a cave lion jaw there too.”

The wood bison (often called the wood buffalo) in North America were a bit better off. They were almost eradicated in the early 20th century, but they survived. Then a herd of bison was discovered in Canada – unblighted by man, nature or illness – a total of 200 beasts. “They were found 60 years ago, in 1957, in Alberta,” says Semyon Semyonovich Egorov, lead expert at the Ust-Buotama bison nursery (essentially its permanent leader). “The herd has since grown to over 2,000 animals – spread across various reserves, naturally,” he adds.

So why, in 2006, did Canadian specialists from Elk Island National Park, choose Yakutia as the place to send a bison control group? The primary reason was the climate, but its location is another important aspect: the area is extremely remote, far from civilisation. The third reason is that the food is similar to that in the bisons' Canadian habitat. So the fourth reason stems from the first three: it provided the best conditions for the task. “The objective is to protect the wood bison gene pool on a global scale,” Andrey Popov explains.

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The Canadians were happy with how the project began, so they sent two more groups to the Yakutian nursery in 2011 and 2013, making a total of three shipments of 30 bison each. A generous gift, which flies in the face of the turbulent relations between Russia and the West (which includes Canada).

“Time passes, things come and go, but we need to preserve the critter,” Semyon Egorov notes. “Even to the point that they could survive even a nuclear war. The bison must live on!.”

Good-natured, but Wild

Semyon Semyonovich turned 55 in January. An excellent vet, bovine expert, and a teetotaller, there’s no one quite like him. When the first 15 couples were shipped over in 2006, he was appointed to the bison nursery. Before that, Egorov had only seen bison in movies and didn’t expect them to be so big. “They’re kind, but gigantic. I got used to them,” he says.

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The bison nursery has a fairly modest set up: several single story wooden cabins, one of which houses Egorov’s central office. It has an iron furnace, which helps keep warm in the winter. “Many of our guests are quite impressed by those things,” Andrey Popov points to reinforced trailers by the fence, which the Canadians used to deliver the bison, driving along the frozen Lena, then Kirim Rivers, and through the woods to Ust-Buotama. They’re now used to transport young stock to Sinsky Pillars – almost 500 kilometres from here.

“The nursery is called Tympynay,” Egorov explains. “There’s no one within a 100 kilometre radius. Not like here.” Ust-Buotama is 80 kilometres from the Lena Pillars, a well-known tourist attraction – some tourists pop in here for a visit. They’re always welcome. “We do worry about our gentle giants,” admits Semyon Semyonovich.

“They’re very good-natured, but wild,” Semyon Egorov describes his herd. “If you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you. If you back them into a corner – then watch out, they’ll wreak havoc. The bison is very Russian in this way.”

The first Yakutian calves of Canadian bison were born two years after their arrival. This was very unexpected – after relocation, animals generally don’t bear young for three or four years. The agreement with Canada states that the 90 bison were gifted to the Yakut preserve. Although they cannot be moved from Ust-Buotama under this agreement, their offspring are fully naturalised and experts are free to move them wherever they see fit.

A 1,000-kilogram Eating Machine

Two dozen Russian, or Yakutian, well, actually, Canadian “critters” share a thirty-hectare field for pasture. They’re bulls – the females are kept on the other side of the nursery. Egorov’s assistants are dispersing the feed in front of the bulls. “It’s a special treat for them, so we’re drawing them to the fence,” Semyon Semyonovitch notes. “Usually they eat hay, but they also dig up snow and graze on grass. Sometimes they even find green grass if they really put in the effort.”

Homyak (translated as “Hamster”) is one of the oldest specimens here. Weighing about a metric tonne, the beast is oblivious to our camera, busily bulking up. The rest of the bulls are eating in the background. The female herd is more closely knit, and all feed together. But then again, they’re given special feed every day, so they don’t need to dig into the snow. Talk about workplace discrimination. But then again, neither Homyak, nor his friends Taras, Batur or the other bulls have the responsibility of bearing calves.

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The herd produces five to 12 calves a year. The nursery administration claims that the number of newborns is a clear indication of the following year’s yield. In 2016 there were ten, so this year is supposed to be a good one. “You can take that to the bank,” Egorov assures us.

The total number of Yakutian bison, both new arrivals and locals, is now 175. We have 82 surviving Canadian bison here, of the original 90. The permitted loss is 50 percent, but 25 percent is par for the course. Semyon Egorov shares his experience of keeping the rate at ten percent with his Canadian colleagues. The bison re-introduction programme is in full swing, and not just in Yakutia (although the Sakha Republic was the proving ground for Elk Island specialists, who sent a control group there). “The United States were the second in line. When they found out about our programme they almost got mad,” explains Andrey Popov. “But there's now a herd living in Alaska,” he adds.

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The Smell of Freedom

So, if everything goes according to plan, 30 bison (Yakutian bison) will be released to the wild – in Tympynay, as wild as it gets. Actually, a few years ago, some bison got a taste for freedom. Two bulls and a small group of cows actually escaped from the nursery. After several months they were returned to their enclosures, but not before they'd had their share of adventures. “Batur broke through the fences of the meadows where he was grazing. He also injured three mares, which we had to pay for,” Egorov says.

Although 2017 has been declared the year of ecology of Russia, the release of the bison is a coincidence. It’s no small feat: first free-roaming Eurasian bison! The experiment also expanded in Canada, where Canadian experts released a herd into Banff National Park. They were transported in containers carried by helicopters.

“Helicopters are fine and all,” Andrey Popov says, “But it’s too expensive for us. You can always drive – especially if you build a road first.”