The wood bison (Bison bison athabascae) or mountain bison (often mis-called the wood buffalo or mountain buffalo in North American English), is a distinct northern subspecies or ecotype of the American bison. Its original range included much of the boreal forest regions of Alaska, Yukon, western Northwest Territories, northeastern British Columbia, northern Alberta, and northwestern Saskatchewan.[clarification needed] It is currently listed as threatened on Schedule I of the Species At Risk Act.[clarification needed]
The wood bison differs from the Plains Bison (Bison bison bison), the other surviving North American subspecies/ecotype, in a number of important ways. Most notably, the wood bison is heavier, with large males weighing over 900 kilograms (2,000 lb), making it the largest terrestrial animal in North America. The highest point of the wood bison is well ahead of its front legs, while the plains bison's highest point is directly above the front legs. Wood bison also have larger horn cores, a darker and woollier pelage, and less hair on their forelegs and beard.
As with other bison, the wood bison's population was devastated by hunting and other factors. By the early 1900s, they were regarded as extremely rare or perhaps nearly extinct. However, a herd of about 200 was discovered in Alberta, Canada in 1957. This herd has since recovered to a total population of approximately 2,500, largely as a result of conservation efforts by Canadian government agencies. In 1988, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) changed the subspecies' conservation status from "endangered" to "threatened".
On June 17, 2008, 53 Canadian wood bison were transferred from Elk Island National Park in Alberta, Canada, to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center near Anchorage, Alaska. There they were to be held in quarantine for two years, and then re-introduced to their native habitat in the Minto Flats area near Fairbanks, but this plan is still on hold as of 2011.
Publicly owned free-ranging herds in Alberta, British Columbia, Yukon, and the Northwest Territories comprise 90% of existing wood bison, although six smaller public and private captive breeding herds with conservation objectives comprise approximately 10% of the total (n ≈ 900). These captive herds and two large isolated free-ranging herds in the Yukon and Northwest Territories all derive from disease-free and morphologically representative founding stock from northern Wood Buffalo National Park in northeastern Alberta and southern Northwest Territories. These captive herds are particularly important for conservation and recovery purposes, because the larger free-ranging herds in and around Wood Buffalo National Park were infected with bovine brucellosis and tuberculosis after 7,000 Plains Bison (Bison bison bison) were trans-shipped by barge from Buffalo National Park near Wainwright, Alberta in the 1920s.
Diseases including brucellosis and tuberculosis remain endemic in the free-ranging herds in and around Wood Buffalo National Park. The diseases represent a serious management issue for governments, various local Aboriginal groups, and the cattle industry rapidly encroaching on the park's boundaries. Disease management strategies and initiatives began in the 1950s, and have yet to result in a reduction of the incidence of either disease despite considerable expenditure and increased public involvement.
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