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Could Alaska be home to woolly mammoths again? This reporter had to find out.


A screenshot from the Alaska Future Ecology Institute website. (By Nathaniel Herz/Northern Journal)

As far as we know, the last time a woolly mammoth roamed mainland Alaska was nearly 12,000 years ago. And while it may sound like a fairy tale, some people believe that mammoths may soon be roaming the far north again.

Northern Journal reporter Nat Herz recently went down the rabbit hole from fairy tales to find out how woolly mammoths could become, as they say, “extinct again.” And it all started with a calendar.

Herz and Casey Grove of Alaska Public Media issued a joint statement.

Hear:

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This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Julia G.: OK, you've taken a little journey here. Maybe not a small one. But a long one.

Nat Heart: A huge one.

CG: A mammoth journey. Tell me how it all went. How did you get there?

NH: You know, every month I try to go through the public calendars of the major foreign ministry commissioners and agency heads, and I looked at the Commissioner of the Department of Fisheries and Game. There was a four-hour meeting that was just called “Woolly Mammoth.” It was actually misspelled. It was spelled like “Wally” Mammoth. And I thought, “What the heck?” for your listeners. So I called and asked, “What's going on here? Is this real?” Because I had heard some rumors and got an email a while back, maybe about something related to the mammoth resurrection. And I thought, “OK, four-hour meeting, Commissioner of the Department of Fisheries and Game, is there anything here?” So I did what reporters do, which is I just filed a Freedom of Information request and asked for every email in the Commissioner of Fisheries and Game's inbox that had the word “mammoth” in it.

CG: And what was the result?

NH: As it turns out, if you go back 10, 15, 20 years, in the words of one of the email writers to the Commissioner of the Department of Fisheries and Game, there are these mad scientists in Siberia who had this idea that when permafrost thaws, it basically has a lot of methane in it, which when it thaws, it goes up into the atmosphere and makes global warming worse. So what if we could keep the permafrost frozen and prevent all these greenhouse gases from going into the atmosphere?

And the idea of ​​these gonzo Russian scientists was, “What if we released a menagerie of herbivores into the tundra?” And the theory, which has been somewhat borne out by their, you know, fairly limited research, is that these herbivores go out and stomp around in the snow in the winter – which normally insulates the tundra and actually keeps it warmer – if you stomp the snow on the tundra, it keeps the tundra colder during the harsh winter climate and the permafrost thaws less.

It turns out there's a guy in Haines, Alaska, who made a documentary about the Russians and now he basically wants to restore what they call a “Pleistocene Park” in Alaska. He basically wants to introduce a lot of herbivores into the tundra, probably near the summit of Denali, and basically do a lot of scientific research to see if he can stop the thawing of the permafrost.

CG: Scientific research, and I'm sure some tourists would at least be interested in taking photos of them, right? So how does this relate to the emails you found? And I assume there's a company in the United States involved?

NH: Yeah, so, just to be clear, the Alaska Future Ecology Institute, which wants to build this kind of herbivore park near Denali, is mammoth agnostic. They say, “Yes, mammoths would be great snow walkers, but we're actually more on the side of musk oxen, reindeer, so conventional charismatic megafauna.”

At the same time, there's a life sciences company called Colossal, which is kind of a merger of an engineer and a very respected geneticist named George Church. They've formed this company that's getting into what they call the “reanimation” business. And what they want to do is take the DNA of a frozen mammoth, which can generally be pretty intact because mammoths, unlike dinosaurs, went extinct not that long ago. They want to take that DNA, some of the key mammoth traits – the wooliness, the fat content, the tusks – and basically insert those into an elephant genome and basically reanimate the woolly mammoth and keep it alive.

And one of the justifications for that is that if you put the mammoth in the tundra, in one of those tundra environments, you can help trample the snow and preserve the permafrost. And they say that they'll have their first mammoth-elephant hybrid by 2028, I think, and they're interested in putting it in Alaska.

CG: Right, so it's like they need a place to do that. And some of us might think that's crazy, but they say they can do it. But how seriously does the state of Alaska take that?

NH: I interviewed the fisheries and game commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang for this article and I think he knows that these guys are reputable and that this could also be a useful technology for potentially endangered species in Alaska, like Chinook salmon. And I think he's not going to rule it out. When and if they get to the point where they have something that they can deploy here on the tundra, which I think will be a long time because it will take years and then it has to grow up and be ready to live without supervision and support, but I think they would probably consider it.

One of the funniest parts of the correspondence I received was that you also got this company, the Chief Animal Officer of Colossal, to send another email to Doug Vincent-Lang saying, “What if we could also resurrect a Pleistocene wolf? And we want to have the right predator-prey balance, and we could send the wolf to the tundra and have it hunt the mammoths?” And Doug Vincent-Lang had this very dry, serious response saying, “Yeah, that seems like a lot. Let's focus on the mammoth for now.”

CG: I found another funny part in the conversation with Doug Vincent-Lang, the fisheries and game commissioner, when he said something like, “You know, we're not trying to do Jurassic Park here.” But then he described doing something like, at least a pilot program on an island, which sounded like Jurassic Park to me.

NH: Yes, that's actually true. There was a discussion here. It sounds like the fisheries and game commissioner was talking to the president of the tribal government on St. Paul Island, way out in the Bering Sea, about whether that would be an appropriate place to house a mammoth where it can't escape and run wild through the streets of Anchorage?

So, you know, I think that's already out there, but it's definitely something that people are really talking about. And I think the bottom line of this story is that it's a compelling concept and a compelling conversation, and people are captivated by this idea. It's the original charismatic megafauna, the woolly mammoth. And I think it's just impossible for people not to get excited when they hear that this could happen. It sounds like science fiction, but given the technology that we have access to, maybe it's not science fiction anymore. And I think, you know, both because it's just compelling stuff and because it's at least technologically plausible, it's stuff that people are really genuinely engaging with.

CG: And one last thing: you mentioned that they might need four more years to create this woolly mammoth-elephant hybrid. But Alaska might not be the only place they're considering it, right? I mean, is this kind of like the cities competing for the Olympics? Are we competing to create the first woolly mammoth?

NH: Yeah, that's a good question. It really annoyed me. You know, you think about it and you think, “Okay, somebody wants to revive a woolly mammoth and eventually you need a place to release it into the wild. And of course that's going to be Alaska.” And when I interviewed the CEO of the company, he said, “No, I'm sorry. You don't have a monopoly on mammoth territory. They actually roam all over the place. And we've had great discussions with North Dakota and the state of Wyoming about whether we could release a mammoth there.” And as I wrote in my story, Wyoming and North Dakota, get off our lawns. Those are our mammoths. Stay away.


a portrait of a man outside

Casey Grove is the anchor of Alaska News Nightly, a general assignment reporter and editor at Alaska Public Media. He can be reached at cgrove@alaskapublic.org. Read more about Casey Here.

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