Imagine yourself in Saskatchewan’s beautiful Prince Albert National Park in the middle of winter. The cold crisp air nipping at nose and cheeks. The winter sun low on the horizon, barely peeking above the treeline and providing little radiant heat. The recent snowfall hides the snowshoe tracks of previous outings and provides a ledger for those residing in the park. Bundled thicker than a tobogganing toddler, camera in one hand, binoculars in the other. Snowshoes crunching, six kilometres into the park, when suddenly through the trees in the meadow ahead, the unmistakable brown silhouettes of bison. Up wind and still hidden deep in the tree line, the animals remain relaxed, unaware and continue to graze. Time to purge what’s not needed; snowshoes only inhibit crawling and at this close range binoculars may as well be microscopes.
It’s important to emphasize that North America’s largest mammal may appear to be nothing more than gigantic lumbering cows as they calmly graze and meander across open plains, but if needed they can effortlessly outrun a person and reach speeds of sixty-five kilometres per hour. Attempts to domesticate bison in the early 20th century had little success and they were described as having “wild and ungovernable tempers”. An 800 kilogram bison can launch itself two metres vertically. In Yellowstone National Park between 1980 and 1999 more than three times as many people were injured by bison than both black and brown bears combined – the former coming into contact with seventy-nine people. Though ultimately bison are a prey species and when faced with fight or flight – it’s as if they magically sprout wings.
Crawling through the snow, pushing the camera and tripod ahead foot by foot, while constantly watching the herd makes for slow going. After roughly an hour of crawling, the adrenaline wears off and Mr. Bladder begins begging for attention. An anatomical gender advantage comes to the rescue and a casual roll and momentary pause solves the issue. Stomach pressed to the knee deep snow, and with wind chill the temperature is approaching -30°C. Now within a hundred metres, every unintentional noise interrupts chewing and raises a head or two. It’s been roughly two hours in this prone position and it soon becomes obvious the game of hide and seek is over. You’re being stared down by a 800 kilogram bison whose horns measure over a foot in length.She is no more than forty metres directly in front of you – and there are fifty or so of her girl friends with her too. Who wouldn’t want to simply lay here for as long as possible and enjoy the majesty of these massive animals?
Prince Albert National Park is 240 kilometres from Saskatoon and I’ve made the trek ten times in the last few months specifically looking for bison. The plains bison range freely on the west side of the park and during the winter months they typically remain in an area roughly 750 square kilometres in size – of which 50 square kilometres are outside the park boundaries. These bison are very skittish and even the slightest quick movement, sound, or scent is enough to send them storming across the grasslands. There’s good reason behind their shy behaviour too: wolves, whose predation of the bison is being actively studied by Parks Canada. These bison are nothing like those of Elk Island National Park, Alberta, who live protected from predators within a giant 136 square kilometre fenced paddock and are visited by flocks of tourists throughout the year. They’re also nothing like the bison of Yellowstone National Park, who are surprising tolerant of people and vehicles. Essentially, you have a greater chance of seeing southern resident killer whales while crossing the Strait Of Georgia on a BC Ferry than you do bumping into the bison of PANP – flash back 50 years and you had zero chance at all.
After spending a couple of hours laying in the snow with muscles cramping and stomach running on Clif Bar fumes, I slowly sat up and set up my tripod. A few individuals in the herd paused for a moment, but quickly returned to grazing. I was very surprised that the bison weren’t alarmed by my close proximity – though they had been aware of my presence for quite some time. The shutter of my Canon 5DmkII is without a modern “silent mode” and every frame I fired off interrupted the chewing of at least one animal, as such, I focused primarily on capturing video. However, without decent sound to accompany moving picture, only half of the scene is captured. I’d chosen to leave my shotgun microphone with my binoculars and snowshoes, two hundred metres back up the trail and immediately regretted the decision. Leaving the camera recording and focused on the herd I began to make my way back up the trail, into the trees, in order to retrieve the shotgun microphone. However, this time I moved in more of a hunched over walk instead of crawling. I’m not sure whether it was my height or the slightly faster speed at which I was moving, but something startled a lone bison grazing further away from the herd and the rest followed. I feel bad having disturbed the herd, but the fact that they’re still wary of people shows how truly wild and free they are.
In 1888 there were only eight bison remaining in Canada. Today there are an estimated 600,000 bison worldwide, of which, only 3% are considered “non-commercial” and can be found ranging throughout national parks of both the United States and Canada. Back in 1906 the Canadian federal government had the intelligence to purchase one of the last herds of plains bison in North America. A few of these animals founded the Elk Island National Park herd – which has been the source of most plains bison in Canada. In 1969, roughly fifty plains bison were translocated from the Elk Island population to Thunder Hills, just north of Prince Albert National Park, with the intention of providing an additional food source for First Nation peoples. However, the bison had other plans and decided to head south with about two dozen animals ending up in the park.
The small group of plains bison living in Prince Albert National Park steadily reproduced and by 2006 there were 400 wild plains bison in the park. Sadly an outbreak of anthrax in 2008 reduced that number significantly and today there are roughly half as many plains bison inhabiting the Park. Worldwide there are an estimated 11,250 wild free-ranging and semi-free-ranging bison, and only 5 populations have greater than 1,000 individuals. Due to the incredibly small number of bison that have been responsible for repopulating current bison herds, there is a serious genetic bottleneck and today’s herds lack the genetic diversity that existed in bison populations of the 1800’s. As exemplified in the aforementioned anthrax outbreak, the reduced genetic diversity of current populations increases their susceptibility to disease and illness.
The Prince Albert National Park herd accounts for roughly 15% of Canada’s plains bison population and is the only wild herd remaining in the bison’s original Canadian range. Barring any further catastrophic large scale illness, the small population of bison in PANP does appear to be stable. However, the potential for population growth and expansion of their territory outside the park is limited due to agricultural development, and the bison are hunted beyond the protection of the park boundaries. The 1,200 to 1,500 wild and semi-wild Canadian plains bison are considered “threatened” and not “endangered” – as populations do appear to be stable and heading in the right direction.
For any animal in Canada to be considered a species at risk, the process starts with the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada – an independent science advisory board. COSEWIC gives recommendations to the federal government on whether a species is at risk of extinction. However, if the Federal Cabinet receiving the recommendations determines that listing a species will have negative social, economic, or political impacts, the listing can be denied – and often does just that. On January 13th, 2015, COSEWIC stated that “an overall decline is projected for wild subpopulations (of plains bison)”. The Federal Ministry of Environment has indicated its intention to consult provincial governments, first nations, and various other stakeholders across BC, Alberta and Saskatchewan as to whether or not plains bison should be added to the List of Wildlife Species at Risk Schedule 1 – which is significant, as Schedule 1 is the only one of three schedules that provides legal protection.
Plains bison being moved to Schedule 1 would be beneficial to their recovery, but lately being bestowed the honorable listing doesn’t mean as much. Since 1977, 86% of species assessed by COSEWIC have seen their degree of risk remain stagnant or worsen – and those in the know agree this has everything to do with habitat. Canada’s legislature protecting species at risk is the creatively named Species At Risk Act (SARA). The act was adopted in 2002 and requires a Recovery Strategy for each listed species to outline critical habitat for its survival, but to date most submitted strategies have not done so. To compound the problem of habitat protection, the SARA only holds jurisdiction over federal property, such as national parks, post offices, airports and RCMP detachments – and when was the last time you saw a herd of bison licking stamps at your local post office?
It’s impressive to think that just over a hundred years ago there were only eight plains bison in Canada and today there are somewhere between 1,200 to 1,500. With luck the plains bison of Canada are about to receive a bit of new federal turf in Banff National Park. It’s not a done deal yet, but it appears a small group of young bison will be translocated by Parks Canada from the disease free Elk Island herd and introduced to the park in the near future. Though the potential Banff National Park bison won’t be visible to the public for at least a few years, there are ample opportunities to view bison across Western Canada. If you have time, make a point of seeing a bison herd first hand and take a moment to appreciate what North America looked like with 10 million animals dominating and shaping the landscape.