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


A screenshot showing artwork of mammoths with other large animals.
A screenshot from the Alaska Future Ecology Institute website. (From Nathaniel Herz/Northern Journal)

As far as we know, the last time a woolly mammoth roamed mainland Alaska was almost 12,000 years ago. And even though it sounds like a fairy tale, some people think that mammoths will one day roam the far north again.

Northern Journal reporter Nat Herz recently went from fairytale to rabbit hole, trying to gain insight into how woolly mammoths could become “extinct,” as they say. And it all started with a calendar.

Herz joined Alaska Public Media’s Casey Grove to explain.

Listen:

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This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Casey Grove: Okay, you’ve been on a little journey here. Maybe not a little one. A long.

Nat Herz: A gigantic one.

C.G: A mammoth-sized journey. Tell me how this all went. How did you get into this?

NH: You know, every month I try to look at the public calendars of the key state department commissioners, the agency heads, and I looked at the commissioners of the Department of Fish and Game. And there was a four-hour meeting that was only labeled “woolly mammoth.” It was actually misspelled. It was spelled ‘Wally’-mammoth. And I thought, “What the heck?” for your listeners. And so I called and I was like, ‘What’s going on here? Is this real?” Because I had heard some rumblings and had gotten an email a while ago about maybe something related to the resurrection of mammoths. And I thought, “Okay, four-hour meeting, Commissioner of the Department of Fish and Game, is there anything here?” So I ended up doing what reporters do, which is I just filed a Freedom of Information request, and I asked for every email in the Fish and Game Commissioner’s inbox that contained the word “mammoth.”

C.G: And what did that reveal?

NH: It turns out that if you go back 10, 15, 20 years, I think there are, in the words of one of the e-mailers to the commissioner of the Department of Fish and Game, gonzo scientists in Siberia who had the idea that Basically, permafrost, when it thaws, it has a lot of methane in it, which when it thaws flows into the atmosphere and worsens global warming. So what if we could keep the permafrost frozen and prevent all that greenhouse gas from escaping into the atmosphere?

And the idea that these Russian gonzo scientists had was, “What if we release a menagerie of herbivores onto the tundra?” And the theory here, which has been somewhat corroborated by their, you know, fairly limited research, is that these herbivores go out and in the winter they forage around in the snow – which normally insulates the tundra and actually keeps it warmer – if you If you trampling the snow on the tundra, this ensures that the tundra remains colder during the harsh winter climate and that less permafrost thaw occurs.

So it turns out there’s a guy in Haines, Alaska, who made a documentary about the Russians, who now actually wants to create a so-called “Pleistocene park” in Alaska and introduce a bunch of herbivores to the tundra. probably near Denali, and they’re actually doing a lot of scientific research to see if they can stop the thaw of the permafrost.

C.G: Scientific research, and I’m sure a few tourists would be interested in at least taking a photo of them, right? How does that fit in with the emails you found? And I assume there’s a company involved in the United States?

NH: Yes, to be clear: the Alaska Future Ecology Institute, which wants to establish these kinds of herbivore parks near Denali, is mammoth agnostic. They say, “Yeah, mammoths, you know, would be great snow slowers, but really, you know, we’re more in the mode of musk ox, reindeer, you know, conventional charismatic megafauna.”

At the same time, there’s a life science company called Colossal, which is sort of a union of a techie and a very highly regarded geneticist named George Church. They created this company that is in what they call the “de-extinction” business. And what they want to do is take the DNA from a frozen mammoth, which can generally be quite intact because mammoths, unlike dinosaurs, went extinct not that long ago. They want to take that DNA, take some of the key traits of the mammoth – the woolliness, the fatness, the tusks – and essentially splice that into the genome of an elephant and basically bring the woolly mammoth back to life and let it roam around .

And one of the reasons to do this is because if you put the mammoth on the tundra, in one of these types of tundra environments, it can help with this process of trampling the snow and preserving the permafrost. And they say they’ll have their first mammoth-elephant hybrid by 2028, I think, and they’re interested in putting it in Alaska.

C.G: Right, so it’s like they need a place to do this. And some of us may think that’s crazy, but they say they can do it. How seriously does the state of Alaska take that, though?

NH: I interviewed Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang for this story, and I think he understands that these guys are legit, and this could also be useful technology for Alaska species that may be at risk, like king salmon. And I think, you know, he’s not going to ignore it. If and when they get to the point where, you know, they have something that they want to release here on the tundra, which, I don’t think, will happen for a long time because it will take years and then it has to grow up and be done are to live without supervision and support, but I think they would probably enjoy it.

One of the coolest parts of the correspondence that I got was you also had this company, the Chief Animal Officer of Colossal, send an email to Doug Vincent-Lang saying, “What if we also, like , bringing a Pleistocene wolf back to life? And you know, we like to have a good balance between predator and prey, so we can put the wolf on the tundra and let it chase the mammoths.” And Doug Vincent-Lang had a very dry, serious response where he said, “Yeah, that seems like a lot. Let’s concentrate on the mammoth for now.’

C.G: There was another funny part, I thought, in that conversation with Doug Vincent-Lang, the Fish and Game Commissioner, where he said something like, “You know, we’re not trying to do Jurassic Park here.” But then he did describe doing something like this, at least a pilot program, like on an island, which sounded to me like Jurassic Park.

NH: Yes, that’s actually correct. There has been a discussion here. It sounds like the Fish and Game Commissioner has talked to the president of the tribal government on St. Paul Island, way out in the Bering Sea, about, you know, whether this would be a good place to put a mammoth where he, you know, couldn’t escape and run through the streets of Anchorage?

So, again, I think it exists, but it’s definitely something that people are really talking about. And I think the core of this story is that it’s an irresistible concept and an irresistible conversation, and people are fascinated by this idea. It’s the OG, original charismatic megafauna, the woolly mammoth. And I just think it’s impossible for people not to get excited when they hear that this could happen. It sounds science fiction, but maybe it’s actually not science fiction anymore, given the technology we have access to. And I think because it’s just fascinating stuff and because it’s at least technologically plausible, these are things that people are really, genuinely concerned with.

C.G: And then, one last thing, you said something like they’re four years away, they think, from maybe actually creating this woolly mammoth-elephant hybrid. But Alaska might not be the only place they want to do this, right? I mean, is this a bit like how cities compete for the Olympics? Are we competing for the first woolly mammoth?

NH: Yes, that’s a good question. I was actually really upset about this. You know, it’s like you think about it, and you think, “Okay, someone’s going to bring a woolly mammoth back to life, and that person is eventually going to need a place to release it into the wild.” It will of course be Alaska.” And when I interviewed the CEO of the company, he said, “No, sorry. You don’t have a monopoly on mammoth territory. They actually roam far and wide. And we’ve had great conversations with North Dakota and the state of Wyoming about whether we could put a mammoth there. And so, as I wrote in my story, Wyoming and North Dakota, abandon our lawns. These are our mammoths. Stay out.


a portrait of a man outside

Casey Grove is an anchor of Alaska News Nightly, a general assignment reporter and an editor at Alaska Public Media. Reach him out [email protected]. Read more about Casey here.

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