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Big? Buff? Bison.

Open Farm Days looks at the biggest beast on the Prairies

It wasn’t that long ago that you could look out your window in St. Albert or Sturgeon County and see a herd of bison thundering by. Nowadays, you’re lucky if you see a statue of one.

Small wonder, then, that Yvette Rothweiler’s farm near Calahoo draws so many visitors. Her 170-acre farm is one of the few places in Sturgeon where you can still find bison, and she says she often gets people lined up along her fence taking photos of them.

“They’ve always fascinated people,” Rothweiler said, and they’ve been around these lands for a lot longer than cattle.

“They’re very playful. They like to run around and play fight or lay and graze.”

It’s Open Farm Days this Aug. 19-20 in Alberta. This year, the event is throwing a spotlight on bison — a vital part of Alberta’s ecosystem. To mark the occasion, the Gazette is taking a closer look at how Alberta’s biggest animal all-but vanished from the Prairies, and how people now hope to bring them back.

Keystones of the Prairies

Maria Nelson teaches St. Albert youth about bison as an education programmer with the Arts and Heritage Foundation of St. Albert. Bison are also important to her culturally as a Métis woman.

“I just think they’re beautiful animals. I even have one tattooed on my leg!” she said.

Bison (sometimes called buffalo) are the biggest mammals in North America, standing close to two metres tall and weighing over a tonne, reports Hinterland Who’s Who.

Bison are extremely well adapted to the Prairies, said Jonathan DeMoor, a Parks Canada ecologist who studies bison in Elk Island National Park. Their massive heads and shoulders plow through snow to get at food, while their thick hides let them shrug off -30 C conditions — you’ll often see them with snow piled on their backs. Despite their mass, bison are also quite agile, able to run at 60 km/h and leap nearly six feet in the air.

Those traits mean Rothweiler needs tall steel fences to keep her 30-odd bison from wandering off her property. They otherwise don’t need much support — they breed on their own, get almost all their food and water by grazing, and have never needed vets or medicines.

“They’re just very self-sufficient,” she said.

Bison first came to North America via the Bering Land Bridge about 130,000-75,000 years ago, writes historian Lauren Markewicz. They later split into two subspecies, both of which are found in Alberta. The wood bison (Bison bison athabascae) is the bigger one with a very rectangular hump, and once roamed from northern Alberta to the Yukon. The plains bison (Bison bison bison) is smaller with a rounder hump, and favoured the flatter lands between Alberta and Mexico.

Bison are a keystone species in the Prairies, the World Wildlife Fund reports. They plow paths in the snow for pronghorn, create nesting places for prairie dogs and birds, and dig temporary water holes for amphibians by rolling around in the dirt — a behaviour called wallowing.

Bison are also a keystone for Indigenous communities, Nelson said. The buffalo is part of the Seven Sacred Teachings, representing the concept of respect. Entire communities would work together on buffalo hunts, chasing them into pens, stampeding them off cliffs, or (in the case of the Métis) shooting them from horseback, with the Métis establishing legal codes to govern their hunts.

Nelson said the bison was the “general store” for the Métis and First Nations in that it supplied almost all the food, clothes, and tools they needed in their daily life. One bison could provide up to 550 pounds of food, Markewicz writes.

Researchers believe there were 30 to 60 million bison in North America prior to 1492 and the start of European settlement, Nelson said. As late as the 1840s, bison herds were so large that they made snow-covered fields appear black to the tops of hills, and made a sound like distant thunder when on the move, Markewicz writes.

All that changed in less than a century. Overhunting, the conversion of grasslands to farms and settlements, and a deliberate attempt by the U.S. government to destroy the bison as a way to control Indigenous peoples drove the animals to near extinction, the World Wildlife Fund reports. By 1889, there were maybe 512 plains bison left in North America.

The bison’s destruction brought massive change to the lives of First Nations and Métis people, Nelson said. Without the bison to provide food and tools, First Nations communities were forced to turn to the fur trade and later to sign treaties with the federal government, exchanging land for promises of food, medicines, and farm equipment. After the last great buffalo hunt in 1879, many Métis moved into farming. The end of the hunts and Louis Riel’s 1885 North-West Resistance broke up many Métis communities, and pushed some to conceal their Métis roots for decades.

Bringing bison back

Today, the only bison you’re likely to see in St. Albert is the bronze statue of one across from the Perron Street clock tower.

Most of today’s bison are on farms like Rothweiler’s. There are about 472 such farms in Alberta containing about 65,405 bison, Alberta Agriculture and Irrigation reports — about 44 per cent of the Canadian on-farm population. The Alberta Wilderness Association says there are now about 7,500 wild bison in Canada.

Elk Island has about 600 bison roaming about the park, DeMoor said. Some 3,000 descendants of that herd have been sent to Banff, Montana, Russia, and various First Nations communities over the last few decades as part of an ongoing effort to restore the species to the wild.

DeMoor said habitat loss is the biggest barrier to bringing wild bison back to Alberta, as almost their entire range has been converted to farms and cities. There’s a psychological barrier as well; bison have been gone so long that they’re seen as unnatural, something to be kept fenced in instead of being left free to wander.

The sight of live bison can help Indigenous peoples reconnect with their history, Nelson said. A growing number of Canadian and American Indigenous communities have acknowledged the importance of the bison by signing the Buffalo Treaty, which commits them to the conservation and promotion of the animal and the cultural practices connected with it.

When she teaches youths about St. Albert’s history with the bison, Nelson said she emphasizes how our actions as humans can both help and harm these animals.

“The choices they make can help bring the bison back or it can create a space where the bison can’t (return),” she said.

Kevin Ma

About the Author: Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.
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