Share it! Science : STEM Opportunities Where the Bison Roam

STEM Opportunities Where the Bison Roam

© Ansgar Walk (CC-BY-SA)
For a century, the wood bison have been extirpated (or locally extinct) from Alaska. That is all about the change. The wood bison, a larger subspecies of the American bison that roam places like Yellowstone National Park, are about to be re-introduced to an ecosystem that has been long missing a large grazing animal. This reintroduction project, which has taken over 20 years to complete, is not only good for Alaskan ecosystems, but also a great way to teach science and math.

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The Alaskan Wildlife Conservation Center (AWCC) has been working with the Alaskan Fish and Game Department to bring back this species, whose status changed from endangered to threatened in 2012. Sunday March 22nd, 2015 the Alaska Department of Fish and Game began the process of moving the animals from the conservation center where they have been raised to a staging area where they will then prepare for release.

The bison were flown in 20 foot containers that have 7 individual stalls to carry adult bison, each weighing anywhere from 1,200 to 2,000 lbs. The containers can carry up to 17 of the smaller, juvenile bison. The first introduction will be females, of which about 25 are pregnant, and juveniles 2 years or older. Males will be brought in by barge in the summer. In 2-3 weeks when they have acclimated to the staging area and are shown to be in hearty and healthy, they will be released into the wild.

The project has taken time because of red tape and restrictions. An agreement has been reached and this population of bison is being considered an "experimental population not essential to the continued existence of the species" and will be maintained by local wildlife officials. This consideration allows the bison to be exempt from the restrictions of the Endangered Species Act.

In order to educate students about this project, the AWCC, Bear Trust International and Inspired Classrooms teamed up to create free STEM curriculum surrounding the wood bison release. The curriculum targets students in grades 7-8 and meets Alaska and National Science Standards. This STEM oriented lesson has students studying real data and developing their own management recommendations based on calculations of how much wood bison eat, the size of available sites, land ownership issues and more. The curriculum can be found on the AWCC website here. Additional lesson plans cover wood bison behavior and the natural history of other Alaskan ungulates, or hoofed animals.

This project is a great opportunity to not only teach about the science and math of species management, but also many other interdisciplinary concepts. Food webs, population maps and geography, land history, federal regulations and legislation, etc. How do you envision using a topic like this in your classroom or home study? Leave your ideas in a comment below, or e-mail me at

Post updated: 4/14/16

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Project Resources:
Here are some additional resources for your study of Bison and Alaskan Wildlife. Click on the images for more information.

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