In the 1880s, colonial settlers rendered the North American bison population almost completely extinct.
Indigenous to most of the continent, there was once an estimated 30 to 60 million bison—or buffalo, as they’re also often called—alive in North America. But by 1884, there were less than 400 bison left.
The bison population was reduced by a ratio of 75,000:1 from the early 1800s up until 1884.
The species was hunted for several reasons, the largest being to starve certain Indigenous communities into assimilating by depleting a crucial food source; considered a sacred animal to many First Nations communities, the bison was the source of key resources, including food, clothes, and shelter.
When North America’s bison population came dangerously close to extinction in 1884, the first conservation efforts for the species were organized by private ranchers in 1885 and the Smithsonian museum in 1886, and other museums and government agencies followed suit in the following years.
Now, there are almost 400,000 bison on the continent, upgrading them from endangered to ‘near threatened’ status. In Canada alone, the 2016 census reported just under 120,000 bison on Canadian farms—a dramatic increase from the 42,000 counted ten years prior.
For Indigenous communities in the area, the bison were a crucial neighbour, both as a resource and a cultural marker. On Jan. 7, 2020, 22 bison were reintroduced to the traditional lands of the Zagime Anishinabek First Nation—a gift from the Peepeekisis Cree Nation.
Because the species exists in such small numbers, few have been introduced back into the wild—but their reintroduction to the Zagime Anishinabek lands proves that many animals could be returning home soon.
The sources for the rebounding population of bison vary: those in conservation projects, those reintroduced to the wild, and those farmed and raised for livestock. Thanks to these various efforts, bison in Canada—and especially in the Great Plains—are making a comeback.
Still, the North American bison is far from restored to its former glory.
Denver and Becky Johnson run Bison Ridge Farms in Prince Albert, SK. The couple bought their first bison in January 2018, and after three years, their herd is hovering at around 170 animals.
According to the 2011 census, around 60 per cent of Saskatchewan is farmland, and the province is home to 32 per cent of the national bison herd.
In an interview with The Pigeon, Denver Johnson said that he and his wife always knew they wanted to settle down and farm sustainably, but they weren’t sure what that would look like, being most familiar with grain farming.
The more research they did, the more bison farming made sense.
“It opened up to us, the opportunities in the industry,” Johnson said.
“We decided we didn’t want to just do the typical green farming thing,” he said. “The land that we purchased [seemed] ideal to start up a bison operation.”
Compared to more common modern livestock species in Canada, bison are incredibly low maintenance. Because they’re native to the land, they don’t need shelter from the harsh winters or vaccinations to withstand the environment, and they thrive from grazing on the prairie grasses. In Johnson’s words, they take care of themselves.
SNOWY SEPTEMBER: A bison trudges through a major winter storm that blanketed Yellowstone National Park on Labor Day brought on by a cold front, just two days after the park saw temperatures reach above 80 degrees. https://t.co/ftDt3QBNXY pic.twitter.com/MU60eGzAaz— ABC News (@ABC) September 9, 2020
The Johnsons were also following consumer trends, because they’d noticed that Canadians want high-quality food, and they want to know where it comes from.
“It seemed like there was a bit of a break in trust between the customer and the farmer, whether that was, you know, big feedlots or huge processing plants,” he said.
“People were looking for local, quality food, [and] that’s what bison is.”
Bison meat is lower in fat and higher in iron than other red meats, with a nutrient density allowing for smaller portions.
Part of what makes the Johnson’s farm unique is how they maintain their herd. Johnson said that some bigger operations ship their animals commercially, so there’s less of a focus on farm to table—which Bison Ridge Farms maintains.
Johnson also mentioned that sustainable agriculture is becoming a hot topic, especially in the last federal election. There’s been a push to regenerate the land, and farmers often talk about mimicking the bison’s grazing habits—which is exciting for the Johnson’s operation.
“We can be a part of reversing climate change, [with] the way the bison allowed the grasslands to [turn] the soil and sequester carbon back into the dirt, [and] the way they naturally move as a group,” he said.
The hardiness of bison is unmatched in other livestock, as their bodies adapt to the cycle of the seasons. In the winter, their metabolism naturally decreases, so they eat less.
Compared to domestic cattle, they’re able to hold their food in their stomach longer. This is through a process called rumination, where food is digested more than once to absorb as many nutrients as possible—reducing the need to constantly search for more grazing land. Then, in the years following, 695 bison were shipped to Canada, and the country’s conservation efforts grew.
“The rancher is just as important in that story of conservation as some of the government agencies,” Johnson said.
The Shankowsky family farm wasn’t always a bison operation.
Almost 400 kilometres away from Prince Albert, in Pelly, SK, the Shankowky’s small grain and cattle farm endured several years of poor crops in the 1990s, from early frosts to too much rain, and, eventually, the family decided to make a change.
Derek Shankowsky also mentioned the bison’s durability to The Pigeon as an important factor in the family’s choice to pursue bison farming.
“If you have a frost, it doesn’t bother a bison; if it freezes, it doesn’t bother a bison,” he said. “So, we figured, let’s switch over to bison and see how it goes.”
The farm, run by Derek, his brother Chris, and their father, Gary, purchased its first bison in 1996. Now, the family has close to 800 bison on their land.
“To this day we still own beef cattle, and we still do grain farm as well, so now we have three enterprises,” he said. “But when you compare all three of them, I mean, the bison are just [majestic].”
“They’ve got that kind of mystery to them, from the past, for historical reasons, and they really do, for the most part, take care of themselves.”
Big Country Bison will occasionally sell a few bulls—adult male bison—to other producers, but for the most part, they’re kept for meat and production.
“In today’s day and age, it seems like food, how it’s raised, how healthy it is for us or our families, our children, everything like that is so important,” he said. “That’s a real positive for the bison [meat industry], we have that healthy product that we want to put out there, that’s really raised consciously for the consumer.”
As far as sustainability, the bison are better for the soil, too. “Animals don’t need the […] fuel they create [and] they don’t break down like machinery,” he said. “They’re basically harvesting machines, and they produce fertilizer for free out the back. So, if you can utilize that, your utility is endless.”
“I think that’s a tool that not too many other sectors can say they have.”
The Elk Island National Park, outside of Edmonton, Alta., has maintained a bison sanctuary for over a century. In the early 1910s, 695 bison were shipped from the last herds in the US to the park, purchased by the Canadian government to begin conservation efforts.
There are only two remaining ecotypes of the North American bison—the plains bison, and the wood bison. While they’re closely related, the wood bison is the largest land mammal in North America, and live further north than the plains bison. Today, both species live at Elk Island.
An adult male bison stands six feet tall and can weigh up to 2,000 pounds, while females stand between four and five feet, and weigh around 1,000 pounds—they’re about the size of a Honda Civic, but a foot taller.
As a keystone species for the ecosystem—meaning that the ecosystem’s wellbeing depends on the bison’s survival—bison conservation efforts benefit every part of the Great Plains, which is one of the most endangered ecosystems on the continent.
Currently, a similar project to the one being conducted on Elk Island is underway 400km southwest, in Banff National Park, Alta. as Parks Canada works to reintroduce a group of 31 plains bison into a 1200 sq km zone.
The Pigeon spoke with Bill Hunt, the Resource Conservation Manager for the Banff Field Unit.
Hunt explained that in the late 1980s, the park had a penned-in area for the bison, but it was interrupting the movement of other species, such as wolves and bears. They hadn’t had bison in the park for 140 years.
“Part of the goal of this project was to restore wild bison as part of the ecosystem in Banff,” he explained.
Then, in 2017, Parks Canada introduced 16 new bison to Banff, flown in shipping containers attached to a helicopter, to the north end of the park. After arriving, the herd was held for 18 months—until calves were born—before being moved further into the park. After one breeding season, the expanded group of 26 bison were released from their current enclosure.
During release, the bison remain gently fenced in, so they don’t follow existing hiking trails. While bison aren’t predatory animals, they are large, and can be aggressive if they feel threatened.
Still, Hunt said the project has been successful.
“Fortunately, [most of the] animals have remained within the park, which is a tremendous success. To date, we believe we’re up to about 50 animals.”
With the herd reproducing, some of the Banff bison are now part of a second or third generation.
The hope is that, soon, they’ll be able to exist outside of the park.
Along the way, Hunt said that Parks Canada has been consulting with Indigenous partners, citing the Buffalo Treaty, which has aligned several groups and 10 Indigenous nations in dialogue about bison conservation and restoration.
When it comes to farming, Hunt said that it presents some challenges to how Canadians perceive bison. The animals are mostly seen in farms, not the wild, whereas, in Banff, the bison are a two-day hike into the park.
“Increasingly these days, [a lot of people’s perception] of bison is as something that’s behind a fence,” he explained. “For a project like this, it’s presented some challenges mentally, for all of us to think about bison as wildlife again, as we would moose, or elk, or deer.”
“That said, bison conservation has depended critically on captive herds. We wouldn’t have the buffalo that we have today if it weren’t for the early ranchers taking on and gathering up some of the last bison, and certainly the Elk Island National Park herd.”
Among other conservation efforts are those of the National Conservancy of Canada (NCC), whose Saskatchewan chapter owns over 50,000 acres of land and around 100,000 acres of conservation easements, including 13,000 acres of ranch land in southwest Saskatchewan.
The NCC’s ranch, Old Man on His Back Prairie and Heritage Conservation Area, or OMB, in Frontier, SK, has 6,000 acres reserved for bison. Some of it is leased out to ranchers or local livestock producers, but the NCC itself maintains a herd of 70 to 80 bison.
Part of Manager of Conservation Science and Planning Matthew Braun’s job is to find ways to address, increase, and maintain biodiversity in the province, a process bison can play a major role in. He, too, highlighted their ability to survive in the niche of the Plains environment.
“It’s a tough life out there in the prairies, and I think the bison really are the poster child for that.”
He pointed out that the NCC has different goals than ranchers.
“We’re more interested in having [bison] there as part of recreating the ecosystem processes that the native grassland they live on evolved under. We’re really trying to, on all of our lands that we own, mimic bison grazing.”
“On our [OMB] ranch, we’re trying to manipulate actual bison grazing as close as we can to what it might have been like prior to the virtual extinction of the herd.”
This ecological focus will hopefully see bison maintain the environment, too.
When asked about the NCC’s consultations with Indigenous communities, he said that some members of management are responsible for reaching out to nations across the province.
“You’re not just talking about bison: you’re talking about land, you’re talking about cultural practices, you’re sharing, you’re sharing meals, you’re sharing stories, and developing a relationship.”
Separate from Parks Canada or conservancy efforts is Wanuskewin Heritage Park, located just outside of Saskatoon, SK. The park, described on its website as an “archaeological goldmine,” has a history dating as far as 6,000 years in the past.
One of the co-founders, Dr. Ernest Walker, first interacted with the park when it was a private ranch in the 1970s, before discovering the wealth of intact archaeological sites located on its grounds. The community then came together to establish the park, and even received a Royal visit from Queen Elizabeth in 1987.
Wanuskewin remains a stand-alone, community-built park, meaning it is not provincially or federally recognized.
In 1992, the park opened to the public. After national fundraising events as part of what the park called the Thundering Ahead campaign, they’ve been building up the park’s resources, and are in the process of applying for a UNESCO World Heritage designation.
Bison first became a part of Wanuskewin in December of 2019. Some of the First Nation’s elders on the consulting board were interested in their restoration, but didn’t have the funds until recently.
”All of this is under the watchful eye of our First Nations [consultants], because obviously, they played such a huge role in ecological relationships with bison [and] they’re a sacred animal to the Plains First Nations people,” Walker said in an interview with The Pigeon.
Last year, the organization was able to go to Grasslands National Park, SK, and obtain six bison.
They were then able to secure several more from the US. According to Walker, the obtained animals have a lot of historical and genetic significance, with the herd now totalling 15 bison—but they want to reach 50 in the next few years, and keep them as wild as possible.
“We try to maintain as minimal human contact with them as possible, so they’re on their own,” Walker said. “I see them every day because we feed them and we’re tending to them, although [they] don’t need a lot of tending.”
Part of Wanuskewin’s mission, too, is to change the perception that the Great Plains are a “wasteland,” or that there’s nothing there—to show that the lands are both precious and endangered.
“Once somebody can get their mind around what they’re seeing, vast skies, vast vistas, and that sort of thing, you come to realize, ‘What a minute, this is actually really special,’” Walker said.
Wanuskewin’s herd is made up of both plains bison and wood bison, with some from Yellowstone National Park—with both of the North American species’ original 1870s genetic lines existing in their park. “That’s kind of the miracle of all of this,” he said.
“We were just really, really lucky.”
“The genetic makeup of these animals is really the critical factor here, [and] because they are so special that we want to try to maintain that into the future.”
Ultimately, the species will be bred together to help the bison genetics proliferate as they continue to be introduced to the wild, and as Wanuskewin continues with its grassland restoration efforts.
“My crystal ball, my time capsule, is no better than yours […] but these animals will be as close as we can get to the 1870s as possible.”
“It’s like an archive.”
This conservation herd, entirely separate from commercial bison meat businesses, is meant to restore the “natural order” of things.
“So many of their pastures were formerly agricultural fields, and we are returning those back to natural grassland,” he said.
“Expensive business? Yes. Does it always work? No. But we’re having good success, so this is all about bison ecology, it’s about the great plains, and environmental conservation and stewardship.”