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magazine / jf05

January/February 2005 issue

Canada’s bison

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

CG In-depth:
Canada’s bison

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 of 2003.


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 clip?

For the rest of this story, visit your local newsstand or go to our store to buy this issue.

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