||January/February 2005 issue||
Back home on the range
Ranchers and conservationists join forces to return a purebred grass guzzler to the prairie
Exerpt of story by Candace Savage with photography by Todd Korol
When 50 plains bison are thundering straight at you, you notice. The glint of horns, the
blur of hoofs, the onrush of power and mass. Suddenly, the two-metre-thick wall of straw
bales that has been set up as a shield for spectators looks worryingly delicate. These
bison are only youngsters — a herd of yearlings from Elk Island National Park, east
of Edmonton, that was moved here, to the wide open spaces of the Old Man On His Back Prairie
and Heritage Conservation Area, near Eastend, in southwestern Saskatchewan, at the end
Now, six months later, they are being pushed out of the small acclimation pasture where
they spent the winter and into their new home, 1,200 hectares of rolling native grassland
atop a high, windswept plateau. Young as they are, these bison are heart-stoppingly big
and fast. They drum toward the barrier and then, with seconds to spare, swing left, charge
past the huddle of onlookers and make a dash for the open range. Within minutes, they have
slowed to a trot and a walk and settled down to graze. Their great heavy heads lowered
to the grass, they flow out across the land toward what appears to be untrammelled horizons.
A whoop of elation goes up from the viewing stand.
In my mind’s eye, I multiply those thrilling dark forms by a hundred, a thousand,
a million, remembering the accounts I’ve read of the old days — before the
boundaries of Alberta and Saskatchewan were etched onto the map — when some 30 to
60 million bison coursed across the grasslands of half a continent, from the Canadian prairies
south to northern Mexico and from the Rocky Mountains east to the Mississippi drainage.
In the early 1800s, North West Company fur trader Alexander Henry wrote about moving through
herds so large that he could not estimate their extent, even after climbing a tree to get
a better view of them. "The ground was covered at every point of the compass, as far
as the eye could reach," he noted of one such sighting, and as the herd travelled
beneath him, the entire prairie for miles around seemed to be alive and moving. By the
1880s, however, those millions had been blasted into oblivion by an influx of market hunters,
on the advancing front of "civilization." Only a few hundred stragglers survived
the onslaught, most of them south of the border, to become the direct ancestors of all
the bison now alive.
But before I can bring this lost world into focus, I am brought back to the present by
the clatter and whirring of cameras, as journalists clustered behind the bales scurry to
meet their deadlines. By nightfall, people across the country will have heard the good
news that bison are roaming freely on the Canadian prairies for the first time in more
than 100 years. Many who hear it will no doubt believe it’s true. It’s not,
of course. Not exactly.
Just beyond the reach of the cameras lie the signs of a century of change: parked cars,
stubble fields, dishevelled farm buildings. Shiny new steel-wire fencing stretches across
the hills, designed for deer to jump over, pronghorns to scoot under and bison to stop
at. Truth to tell, the bison at Old Man On His Back are confined in a pasture, albeit a
largish one, and there is nothing particularly newsworthy about fenced-in bison. There
are currently some 1,700 commercial bison producers on the prairies, with a combined herd
of around 170,000 animals, according to the Canadian Bison Association. So what’s
so special about these 50 bison? And who should really take the kudos for reintroducing
bison and preserving prairie grasslands for them to feed on? Is the rumble at Old Man On
His Back nothing but hype, or is there more to the story than will fit in a 30-second news
For the rest of this story, visit your local newsstand or go to our store to buy this issue.
Can Geo POLL
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