As the vehicle rumbles across the first of three teeth-rattling Texas gates a small herd of white-tailed deer scatter, bounding effortlessly along the ridge line. A quick stop to survey the land is immediately greeted by a hundred black-tailed prairie dogs playing a massive game of telephone. Each step requires an extra ounce of effort to free your boot from the suction of the sticky mud underfoot. The melting snow is quickly flowing off plateaus across the valley into the Frenchman River. The little ground between the vehicle and the plateau edge is riddled by colossal petrified reminders of why you’re here, and one misstep will land you in some serious shit. The stretching prairie landscape in front of you is free of haze and visibility is seemingly infinite. The hardy sages and grasses remain lifeless, painting the landscape fifty shades of brown, waiting patiently to spring back to life. It’s still winter in southern Saskatchewan, though today you’d never know it. Standing at the edge of the steep cliff, eyes pressed tight to binoculars, you begin to scan the vast landscape in front of you.
Grasslands National Park sits along the United States border in southwestern Saskatchewan, roughly four hundred kilometres south of Saskatoon. The nine hundred square kilometre park is divided in two sections. The east block is filled with all sorts of fun, such as rattlesnakes, lightning sparked grass fires, black widow spiders, quicksand and a campsite. The badlands of the east block are considered the richest deposit of dinosaur fossils in the country. The west block has the same snakes, spiders and fires, plus it has bison – just under four hundred of them. The park is also home to a few endangered species, like the black-footed ferret, eastern yellow-bellied racer, greater short-horned lizard, shape-tailed grouse and the burrowing owl. In terms of Canadian national parks, this one is still in its infancy, as it was only officially proclaimed a national park in 2001 and the bison of the west block are even younger.
The plains bison of Grasslands National Park were introduced to their current digs in May 2006, after spending the winter in a small paddock in order to acclimatize to their new environment. The initial 72 very young bison came from Elk Island National Park in Alberta. For those unfamiliar with Elk Island, the bison there have been the “seed source” for most bison populations in Canada since 1967. What makes the plains bison of Elk Island special is what they’re missing – particularly disease and unwanted cattle and wood bison genes. The healthy herd multiplies quickly and with only a 136 square kilometre habitat, the population must be controlled, and translocating animals to create new herds elsewhere is the best option.
Atop the adjacent plateau, more than a few kilometres from where you’re standing, six dark-brown blobs. Shimmering heat mirages obscure the view making it difficult to decipher what you’re looking at; they may just be shadows of large rocks. The question is quickly and irrefutably answered when one of the large rocks gets up and begins walking. Finding bison here has already proven easier than deep in the boreal forest, however getting close enough to photograph them is the challenge. The first foray down across the valley on foot fails miserably. What’s labeled as a creek on the map, is currently swollen with snow melt and could even be considered a river. Though the two hours spent going nowhere aren’t wasted. While standing along the “river” bank you spot a large herd of bison marching eastward, slowly disappearing behind a ridge several kilometres to your east – it’s back to the truck.
Bouncing along the gravel road, heading in the direction of the newly spotted herd, the road gradually curves left around an impressive butte and once past the towering rock mound you spot them. They aren’t the animals you expected to bump into, nevertheless the four bison less than a kilometre north of the road are the closest you’ve come to all day. In true Jurassic Park style you pop through the moon roof and remove your sunglasses in the most dramatic fashion possible. Using the height of the vehicle really helps to get a better glimpse of the herd – if you can call four bison a herd? Three are calmly grazing and the fourth appears to be having the best dust bath of its life and creating a pretty impressive depression in the process. Even from this distance with the aid of binoculars these animals are unquestionably males.
Taking a page from the social groupings of beluga whales, plains bison essentially have a girls club and a boys club. Cows of all ages, along with immature bulls, stick together and are joined by breeding bulls only for a brief period from mid July to mid August – that’s all the time they need. Gestation is nine and a half months, with most cows giving birth in May or June. If you’ve got the thirst to see bison in the wild, take note of these two time periods, May through June and July through August. When males are rutting in summer they have a temper, and when new mothers are watching over their young in the late spring they’re overly protective. Introducing the bison viewing rule of thumb: with your arm fully out stretched in front of yourself, make a first with your thumb extended, if your thumb is unable to eclipse a bison standing sideways – you’re too close! If a bison begins shaking its head, pawing at the ground, snorting loudly, or raising its tail, it’s telling you to bugger off.
As bison aren’t exactly cute and cuddly, why reintroduce them to Grasslands National Park where the public can freely mingle with the big brutes? Just imagine what North America’s prairies looked like with more than thirty million combination lawn mower-fertilizers. Along with re-vegetation programs focusing on native plant species, the bison are helping restore the prairie ecosystem of the park. And they’re not just helping native flora. The bison graze and keep the grasses short. Short grasses allows for larger populations of black-footed prairie dogs, who can now see predators over the neatly trimmed grass. It may sound insignificant, but even the shed hair of bison benefits many of the 26 bird species in the park who use the hair in nest construction. Bison are an integral part of the prairie ecosystem and it’s truly astonishing how much of an impact reintroducing a keystone species has on its surroundings.
Once again on foot, slowly advancing from one Charlie Brown Christmas shrub to the next, hoping the spindly branches hide my silhouette. Ill prepared for the warm weather, my winter boots are filled with water after failing to ford a rushing creek. Ever so slowly creeping nearer to the four lumbering beasts, I can’t help but imagine what it would have been like a couple hundred years ago when these bison were preyed upon by brown bears. With no foliage or terrain to hide behind, making a surprise attack on a bison must have taken immense patience. Even though they haven’t visibly reacted to my presence, I’m up wind, I’ve been sweating all morning, and the tidal waves in my boots aren’t exactly quiet – the bison know I’m here. Having closed the initial distance by half, the bison occasionally take a pause from grazing to check out the approaching stranger. Being cautious not to get too close and stress the animals, I don’t proceed much further and allow the telephoto lens to do the hard work.
Standing in plain view, a little more than a hundred metres from the bison, who are staring right at me – I couldn’t believe what happened next. Nothing. They continue being bison. They graze. They relax, closing their eyes with wind swept hair tight against their faces. They roll and frolic in the dirt. They steal each other’s wallow. They stick their tongues up their noses to remove harmful bacteria. They even add a bit of elevation in the form of fresh bison mountains. They just continue on as if I’m not even here. It is truly amazing to be so close to these magnificent animals and have them be so relaxed. However, not wanting to overstay my welcome, I don’t linger too long and soon bid the bison farewell, backing off just as slowly as during the approach. These bison likely have a slightly more relaxed demeanor than their ancestors who roamed North America’s prairie thirty million strong.
Two hundred years ago, bison living in what is now Grasslands National Park would have been preyed upon by wolves and brown bears. Without either of these predators present today and the herd in generally good health, there will come a point where the bison population here outgrows the park. The Elk Island paddock in Alberta covers 136 square kilometres and usually has somewhere around four hundred fifty plains bison on hand. Custer State Park in South Dakota is 287 square kilometres and is home to an astonishing thirteen hundred plains bison. Grasslands National Park offers the bison 180 square kilometres and currently has four hundred animals, and the biomass supported by this prairie ecosystem is likely the same as Elk Island and Custer State Park. So the question is, at what point do you swallow a spider to catch the fly – are predatory species to be reintroduced to the park as well?
While slowly backing away, one of the bison resumes working on the good sized wallow he just acquired. It’s pretty hilarious to watch a seven hundred kilogram bull roll around on the ground flailing its legs in the air. It’s also impressive to watch what the weight of the bison does to the ground beneath it. Their coarse hair acts like a shovel, collecting soft soil and mud, and digging a sizable divot in the ground. There are roughly twelve species of mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians that utilize bison wallows. For example, the critically endangered sharp-tailed grouse uses the compacted soil of a bison wallow as a dance floor, otherwise known as a lek. In climates that are cool and wet enough during the spring, a well established wallow will often fill with water and effectively create a prairie wetland oasis, perfect for breeding amphibians.There are a handful of hypotheses behind why bison wallow and it’s likely that there’s some truth in all of them: grooming, male-male interaction, social behaviour for herd cohesion, play time, itching insect bites, or thermoregulation.
In their prime an estimated 30 million plains bison roamed North America, but over the last two centuries they were replaced. More than 100 million domestic cattle are now the dominant grazing herbivore and they have essentially destroyed the natural prairie landscape. Less than 5% of the once 68 million hectare tall-grass prairie ecosystem remains. Although bison and domestic cattle are both bovids, their impact on the ecosystem is considerably different. When compared to bison, cattle spend roughly twice as much time grazing, move significantly slower, require more access to water, are not picky eaters, and will typically move to the lowest possible terrain. The bison’s diverse grazing patterns, tolerance for varied terrain, and selective diet actually have positive effects on the ecosystem – and what they leave behind helps out as well.
Bison defecate roughly twelve times a day, each bison patty weights around 1 kilogram and covers an average of 0.4 square metres, which means annually a single bison would create 1.8 square kilometres of dung, weighing roughly 4,200 kilograms. Consider that the dung of the 400 bison in Grasslands National Park in one year would cover just over 700 square kilometres. The burrowing owl is just one species that benefits greatly from the presence of bison dung. There are few tool-using animals on our planet, but it appears the burrowing owl is one of them. They owl’s collect bison dung, placing it at the entrance of their burrow in order to bait prey insects. Dung inside the owl’s burrow is used to attract potential mates, regulate humidity and reduce levels of carbon dioxide. Historical accounts suggest that in mid summer a bison patty would completely disappear in three days. The primary bison patty thieves are dung beetles, who roll away balls of dung many times larger than their own bodies.
Of course while the plains bison of Grasslands National Park are busy helping to rejuvenate the prairie ecosystem; you’re able to watch, enjoy and appreciate their hard work. The park is perfectly laid out for wildlife viewing from the comfort of your climate controlled caravan – heck even the Google Street View vehicle took the scenic drive and caught more than a glimpse of the bison. Ecotour Drive takes visitors on an 80 kilometre route twisting and turning through the park with ample opportunities for viewing the breath taking landscape and the residents who call the park home – bison included. Even while driving a vehicle it’s important to respect the bison, give them their space and the eclipsing rule of thumb still applies – no one want to see the outcome of a vehicle versus bison standoff.
Even though it’s a staggering 800 kilometre round trip from here in Saskatoon to Grasslands National Park, I can’t wait to make the trip again. Sure the blue skies and golden-brown grass of late winter make for some impressive vistas, but the excitement of seeing the landscape painted with lush greens is too much to pass up. Plus, with the changing seasons and the disappearance of snow, a flurry of life returns to the mixed grass ecosystem of the park. Prairie rattlesnakes emerge from their winter dens, burrowing owls return from their Texas winter vacation, and greater short-horned lizards venture into the open is search of sunlight. So with a bit of luck the next story you read here should be a tale of being shot by the ocular-blood-squirting “horned toad”, catching a burrowing owl fulfilling its dung fetish, or alternatively a play-by-play of treating a venomous snake bite.