by Jennifer Zmurchyk – Prairie Sky Wellness
The bloody history of the millions of Plains Buffalo (Bison bison) that once roamed the prairies of north America played an integral role in the settlement of western Canada. Buffalo were important to many people: the First Nations People of Canada as a source of food and way of life, hunters as a source of income and trade, and governments as tool to force native populations into signing treaties.
Once numbering 30 to 60 million animals on the plains of North America, within 10 years during the late 1800’s these numbers were reduced to fewer than 1,000 animals.
Early efforts to conserve buffalo after the mass slaughter by hide hunters were riddled with poor decisions and provide a historical case that the present and future conservationists can learn from. Once numbering 30 to 60 million animals on the plains of North America, within 10 years during the late 1800’s these numbers were reduced to fewer than 1,000 animals.
Populations in Canada are now growing due to the efforts of wildlife managers and private ranchers alike with around 2,000 plains bison living in conservation areas, and between 350,000 to 450,000. However this is still only a tiny fraction of the tens of millions of this key species of ecosystem that once existed on the great plains.
Meet The Plains Buffalo
Most people are in awe when they first see a Buffalo. This massive creature stands six feet high, and can weigh over a ton. Buffalo are well suited to the prairie habitat. They use their shaggy head as a shovel to reach snow covered grass and they can kill a grizzly bear with a toss of their horns.
Buffalo will also eat snow when thirsty and only need water every three to four days. They are gregarious and travel in large herds for protection against predators like wolves and coyotes who prey on calves and diseased stragglers when opportunities exist.
Its cumbersome size is deceptive as Buffalo can outrun horses in short distance races. They also have amazing endurance and can run 400 kilometers (249 miles) in a day with no rest. Buffalo played a key role as grazers in the prairie ecosystem, and kept things in balance by eating old growth grasses and shrubs, clearing the way for plants that require lots of sun.
Bison are no longer seen outside of parks or private ranches, however before their slaughter in the late 1800’s they ranged from Mexico to the Arctic, spanning across North America from the Rocky Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean.
The Connection to First Nations Peoples
What happened between the First Nations People of Canada and European settlers is tragic and is a terrible black mark in Canada’s history.
By definition the Native peoples of Canada and the rest of North America suffered a genocide by the governments settling the land.
For at least 11,000 years before the turn of the century, native tribes across North America hunted and depended on buffalo for their survival. The movement of the buffalo dictated where camps were located and daily life was focused around hunting buffalo and preparing its parts for use. Buffalo were central to native religion and spawned several ceremonies such as the ‘Sun Dance’ which is a right of passage for boys and ‘Spirit Dances’ held under the moon on the eve of the buffalo hunt.
The United Nations Genocide Convention, which was established in 1948, defines genocide as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group”, including the systematic harm or killing of its members, deliberately imposing living conditions that seek to “bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part”
Natives incorporated several methods to hunt buffalo, the most impressive being the buffalo pound and buffalo jump. These methods killed hundreds of animals at a time, but never put a dent in the total populations and the Native’s used every piece of the animal and gave great respect to the spirit of the Bison for giving it’s life so they could eat.
Slaughter by the White Man
After the American Civil War which lasted from 1861 to 1865, industrialization brought new technology to treat previously unusable buffalo hides. This new tanning process, along with high prices offered for hides gave birth to a mass slaughter of magnificent proportions.
To European settlers, the buffalo supply seemed endless because of the massive size of the herds. The market for ammunition and guns at this time was enormous and upon prompting by hunters, Sharps at Bridgeport Connecticut designed and manufactured a special fifty-calibre rifle guaranteed to penetrate the tough buffalo hide.
Unlike the natives, hunters did not use the meat and only took the hides for trading, and humps which were considered a delicacy. The rest of the animal was left to rot and because of this mass slaughter, the countryside became littered with carcasses often several feet deep in certain areas.
The American Connection
The US government soon realized that the decimation of the herds forced natives to submit to federal authorities due to starvation, and so they began supplying hunters with free ammunition. During a joint assembly of House and Senate in Austin, General Phil Sheridan stated:
“Send them powder and lead if you will; but for the sake of lasting peace, let them kill, skin, and sell until the buffaloes are exterminated. Then your prairies can be covered with speckled cattle and the festive cowboy”General Phil Sheridan
By 1879 bison populations were declining. One hide company, I.G. Baker and Company in Fort Macleod, Alberta, Canada marketed 5,764 hides. Only five years before that 250,000 hides were marketed and in 1889 most trading companies were marketing zero hides. By the late 1900’s, it was estimated that fewer than 1,000 animals remained in North America.
Early Conservation Efforts
By the end of the 1800’s plains bison were only present on a few private ranches, the most important being the herd owned by Montana rancher Michel Pablo. During his life on the Flathead Indian Reserve located in western Montana, he met business partner Charles A. Allard and together in 1884 they negotiated the purchase of ten buffalo at $250 a head from Sam Walking Coyote.
In 1893, and eager Pablo along with Allard, purchased the herd of 44 animals belonging to Charles Jesse Jones. Jones, a reputable frontiersman had acquired this herd by scouring the country for stray buffalo calves whose parents had been killed by buffalo hunters. He brought along 20 female domestic cattle in his travels who were quick to form attachments with the hungry young buffalo.
By 1905 the herd grew to an impressive 400 head. However, during this time it was thought that the Flathead Reserve would soon be opened by the American Government for settlement, and grazing privileges would be revoked. Consequently, Pablo decided to sell the herd and was soon approached by representatives of the US and Canadian governments who each wished to purchase it. He rejected the American offer of $75 per head, and in 1906 sold the herd to the Canadian government for $200 per head. Surprisingly, 80% of buffalo today are descendants of the Pablo herd.
Establishment of Buffalo at Wainwright, Alberta Canada
In 1907, buffalo from Pablo’s herd were shipped to Elk Island National Park located in Northern Alberta Canada. Between 1909 and 1912 the majority of these animals as well as further animals from Pablo were shipped to the newly formed National Buffalo Park in Wainwright Alberta.
The buffalo flourished in their new home, and by 1921 they numbered around 5,000 animals. It soon became apparent that the supportability of the range in Wainwright was being pressed to the limit. This in turn posed many problems for park managers when deciding what to do with the excess animals.
During the winter of 1923 to 1924, park officials decided to cull 1,847 buffalo, and faced a major public outcry for this decision. Many of these animals exhibited signs of bovine tuberculosis and bovine brucellosis originating from contact with domestic cattle in Wainwright.
To avoid further criticism from a public that did not equate slaughtering excess animals with protecting them, a decision was made by the Canadian government to ship the excess animals to Wood Buffalo National Park located in Northern Alberta.
Movement From Wainwright to Wood Buffalo National Park
According to Stacy Tessaro (Manager Virology Section Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Lethbridge, Alberta), the worst two mistakes made by the Canadian government concerning bison conservation were:
- The error of mixing cattle and buffalo at Wainwright which resulted in exposure to tuberculosis and brucellosis in the bison
- The Canadian government shipping animals to Wood Buffalo Park knowing that they were diseased
In 1923 the 10,000 square mile Wood Buffalo National Park housed 1,500 wood buffalo (Bison athabascae) which at the time were considered the only animals of its kind in the world.
The justification for shipping the diseased animals from Wainwright to this park was provided by geologist Charles Camswell. Camswell stated that the plains bison would never pass the impenetrable muskeg at the south end of the park, therefore the wood bison at the north end of the park would be safe from disease and inbreeding. Unfortunately, the 6,000 bison brought from Wainwright easily passes this ‘impenetrable’ barrier, and soon began mating with the wood bison.
By 1940 it was generally thought that wood bison were bred out of existence, however in 1957 Dr. Nick Novakowski of the Canadian Wildlife Service did an aerial survey of the park near the Nyarling river and discovered an isolated herd that was later determined to be the closes relatives of wood bison alive. Immediately, 18 bison were captured and shipped to the Mackenzie Bison Sanctuary, and 23 were taken to Elk Island National Park.
Problems Facing Bison as a Result of Poor Conservation Decision Making
Disease in bison at Wood Buffalo National Park poses a threat to buffalo outside the park and cattle alike. Bovine tuberculosis is an infection that progressively weakens the animal, and also affects the respiratory, digestive, urinary, nervous, and skeletal systems. It is not found in any other species of animal in the park.
Bovine brucellosis induces females so spontaneously abort calves. It is estimated that at least 50% of bison in the park were infected with either disease, and in 1990 a Canadian Environmental Assessment Panel concluded that:
Eradication of the existing bison population is the only method of eliminating the risk of transmission of bovine brucellosis and tuberculosis from bison in and around Wood Buffalo National Park to domestic cattle, wood bison, and humansCanadian Federal Environmental Assessment Review Office – Government of Canada
However when the time came to implement the decision made by the panel, opposition was raised by native groups who wanted $20 million and the exclusive rights to cull the diseased animals.
As a result of this opposition, the idea of killing the diseased animals as a means of protecting others fell through. Currently there is a 100 kilometre buffer zone surrounding Wood Buffalo National Park, where anyone is entitled to kill any buffalo seen. This method temporarily prevents diseased animals from coming into contact with cattle and other bison. but likely will not be permanently effective.
Problems Created By Lack Of Genetic Diversity
Since present populations of bison have descended from a small number of animals, lack of genetic variety will likely play a role in the future of bison. While genetic variety has little effect on the daily lives of the species, the potential for evolutionary change is limited.
Geneticists feel that the most successful species are found in isolated areas where bridges exist for individuals to cross bringing new genes that will further the potential to adapt to changes. Current populations of bison are fenced in for the most part, and individual animals do not have access to other herds.
Gene flow among populations does not occur unless humans intervene, and this situation may cause future problems such as limited ability to evolve and birth defects.
The Future of Bison In Canada
Though past conservation of bison may have been misguided, without these efforts there would be no bison to protect today. Today there are more than 2,500 wood bison, and in 1988 they were removed from the endangered category. Plains bison currently number around 350,000 and despite disease and lack of genetic variety, they are considered a success story.
The future of bison will depend largely on economics, mainly in the area of ranching. Bison are an attractive alternative to cattle for many ranchers, because they are cold tolerant and when provided with proper feed, require little maintenance.
Parks Canada is also making efforts to re-introduce the bison to our National parks, and in 2017, 16 wild bison were relocated to Banff National Park from Elk Island National Park.
This majestic animal which once ruled the prairies of North America has once again found a home. Though their future existence is highly dependent on the efforts of people, buffalo along with the deer and the antelope will continue to roam ‘home on the range’.
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Bartlett, Cathie, and Shirley Serviss. 1988. Good News for Canadian Wood Bison. Environment Views Dec. 25-26
Breining, Greg. 1992. Back Home on the Range. The National Conservancy Magazine. Nov/Dec: 10-15
Gilbert, Miles. 1986. Getting a Stand. Hal Green Printing, Tempe, Arizona
Suzuki David. 1997. The Sacred Balance. The David Suzuki Foundation, Vancouver, British Columbia
Oglilve, Sheilagh C. 1979. The Park Bufffalo. Calgary-Banff Chapter National and Provincial Parks Association of Canada.
Tessaro, Stacy V, MSC, DVM, PhD. Personal Interview, Manager Virology Section Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Lethbridge Alberta
Tolton, Gordon E. 1996. The Bufffalo Legacy. Fort Whoop Up Interpretive Society, Lethbridge, Alberta Canada