The idea at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center is for a group of wildlife biologists to prepare a herd of a rare subspecies of bison for introduction into the wild. But, as an arresting video that’s piling up hits on the Internet shows, it ended up working the other way.
It happened in the blink of an eye. One moment, a big bull bison is being herded in an enclosure. The next, the bison lowers his shaggy head and bulls into Steve Mendive, hitting him in the hip and tossing the burly biologist through the air like a rag doll.
Satisfied with the job it’s done, the bull circles away, rejoining the line of bison going for medical checkups while Mendive’s fellows hurry to his aid. Picking himself up somewhat gingerly, Mendive is heard on the video saying, “I think I’m going to have to go to the doctor.”
‘A little brush’That was Wednesday. On Friday, Mendive was grinning for a camera in Anchorage and telling TODAY’s Meredith Vieira and David Gregory that he was none the worse for wear.
“I’m feeling really good,” he said cheerfully. “How are you guys back in New York?”
He described his close encounter as, “just a little brush up against a big animal.”
In this case, “big” was an understatement. At 2,400 pounds, the bull that charged Mendive is the dominant male among the 82 wood bison in the conservation center’s herd. Wood bison are a subspecies of the iconic plains bison that once roamed by the millions across the American frontier.
Wood bison once inhabited the Canadian Yukon and Alaska before all but disappearing. They were formerly thought to be extinct, but a small herd of about 200 animals was discovered in Canada in the 1950s.
Since then, biologists have succeeded in increasing that group’s number to several thousand animals. Last year, a small herd was transferred to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, where they are being prepared to be introduced into their ancestral habitat within the next year or two.
Part of the process is screening the animals for diseases that have beset the surviving population. That involves taking blood and fecal samples and checking them for injuries. That’s what the biologists were doing when the bull took exception to Mendive’s presence in the enclosure.
‘BOB 34’The animals are known to the biologists by numbers, and this one is No. 34. Appropriately enough, if the animal were a football player, that number would designate it as a running back.
“I’ve become pretty fond of old 34,” Mendive told Vieira and Gregory. “I like to refer to him as BOB 34, or Big Old Bison 34. He was just kind of protecting his space there. He’s always been one of the standout bison of the project.”
Mendive’s appearance on TODAY wrapped up a run of animal encounters on the show. A week earlier, there were stories about a New Zealand man who dived out of a helicopter to capture a half-ton marlin with his bare hands, and a group of spear fishermen who survived a two-hour, mano-a-mano battle with a tiger shark. The following week, the focus shifted to humans and their lion friends. All of the stories ended happily, with no injuries worse than Mendive’s bruised hip.
The biologist, looking outdoorsy in a plaid shirt, took the incident in stride. The bison, Mendive said, was only doing his job of protecting his herd.
Mendive talked enthusiastically about the project and the excitement of rebuilding the population of wood bison, which are the largest land animals in the Americas. The effort involves federal, state and provincial governments in the United States and Canada, conservation groups, hunting groups and the not-for-profit Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center.
“This is one of those fantastic opportunities that only comes around once in a lifetime — that is to reintroduce what was thought be an extinct species,” Mendive said.