Bringing Home the Bison

Wes Olson Margaret Atwood photo by Gord Vaadeland

Wes Olson with authors Margaret Atwood and Graeme Gibson in the Saskatchewan Grasslands.  Photo: Gord Vaadeland

Published in the Winter 2011 issue of Eighteen Bridges

One day last spring, at the height of calving season, Wes Olson pulled his white Parks Canada Ford F250 pick-up off a gravel road that winds through Grasslands National Park, near the Saskatchewan-Montana border. He grabbed his binoculars from the dashboard, and scanned the distance. The plains extended toward the horizon like an inland sea. Both the outside and inside of Olson’s truck were caked in mud—it was the wettest spring on record—but he was immaculate in faded green jeans and a matching Parks Canada shirt.

Olson drives this route often to check on the herd of almost 200 plains bison that are scattered across the park’s West Block, an area of 44,000 hectares. For fun, he likes to wander into the short-grass prairie with a bag of alfalfa, call out, “Hey girls!” and have them come running toward him—a party trick that’s earned him a reputation as something of a bison whisperer. He shrugged off the suggestion. “They would forget pretty quickly if I didn’t have a treat.”

That afternoon all he had were binoculars and intuition. It was a windy day—channelling Wallace Stegner, the weather section of Parks Canada’s online visitor’s guide describes the wind as “part of the landscape”—and he figured the bison had sought shelter. Olson has a hawkish ability to spot wildlife; in the distance he noticed a few black specks. Bison are the biggest land animals in North America and weigh as much as the original Volkswagen Beetle. As they clustered two or three kilometres away near the base of a butte, they looked no bigger than flies.

In December 2005, seventy-one bison—30 male calves, 30 female calves, and 11 female yearlings—were relocated from Elk Island National Park, near Edmonton. They spent the winter in a 16-hectare parcel of land and, in late May, after surviving the “death months” of March and April before new vegetation grows, were released into the park’s west block. They took off like race horses.

Though nomadic by nature, bison have internal compasses and if it weren’t for the fence surrounding their new home, the yearlings would have run all the way back to Elk Island—600 kilometres in all. “No one had ever successfully relocated an adult herd,” said Olson, who himself moved from Elk Island to Grasslands to work on the reintroduction program. “Bison always find their way home.” One year, when snow drifts reached the fence-line, an adventuresome male walked up the frozen ramp and headed off across the surrounding ranchland, where he hit another fence. Late last winter, a bull wandered out of the park; wardens found him in early spring.

As the bison settled in to their new home, wardens quietly observed how the herd established itself. Relocating an animal is like dropping a city kid to the far north and making him forage for food. The bison from Elk Island had never seen a river or a hill. They didn’t know what to eat. That first year, they tried to eat pincushion and prickly pear cacti, which are covered porcupine-like barbs. But some behaviours were inherent. The yearlings made a distinct lion-like roar before fighting, something they hadn’t yet learned from their elders in Elk Island, and which they usually start when they’re at least seven years old. Let loose in Grasslands, they mated almost four years earlier than an established herd would because, as Olson put it, “There was no one bigger around to beat them up.” (Yearling males, Olson wrote in his book Portraits of the Bison, “can be particularly obnoxious.”)

When full-grown, bison are all foreheads and barrel chests, with tiny, black pin-like eyes that give them a clumsy, bullish look of aggression. They have a crooked kind of grace and their insistent forward-leaning gallop has an uneven tempo, as if they are running to the beat of a broken metronome.

The Plains bison from Elk Island thrived in their new home down south and each year their numbers increased. With calving this spring it rose to 250. In the next year or two, wardens may need to cap the herd—this in an area that hadn’t seen bison since the 1880s. “At one time,” Olson said, “you could have lined up all the bison in North America and they would have gone around the world three times.”

When I first met Olson, he was describing the reintroduction program to a fourth-year biology class at the University of Saskatchewan, in Saskatoon. He wore a button-up shirt and jeans; a cell phone was holstered to his leather belt. He set his grey Stetson on the Arborite counter of the lab and fingered a remote control for the slide machine. Olson is soft-spoken by nature and has a dry, languid monotone that belies his enthusiasm. “I have a whole PowerPoint presentation on manure,” he told the class at one point, clicking through images.

He joined the Parks service at a time when “you only needed to know how to ride a horse—but high-school helped.” (He dropped out.) He came to Elk Island in 1984 and stayed for 24 years, ranching Plains bison and Canadian warmblood horses in his spare time. He claimed, to have done “a little undercover law enforcement” somewhere along the way, which he divulged with the briefest twinkle in his eyes so you could not quite tell if he was serious.

It was 8:30 a.m., but the class hung on to Olson’s every word. The park is surrounded by ranchland, and some students have ties to the area. When he announced that Grasslands had just made a deal to buy another ranch, a woman near the back of the lab said, “They’re my relatives.”

Grasslands National Park was established on principle in 1981, making it a newcomer to these parts—some cattle ranches go back generations. Two decades of bureaucratic wrangling and real estate negotiations followed, and it wasn’t officially declared a national park until 2001. Even still, it lay fallow for years before the bison arrived. “Ranchers in the area viewed the grass as money in the bank,” Olson told me later. Many locals were happy to see the land finally put to use.

Wes Olson bison wildlife biologist

Wildlife biologist, author, and artist Wes Olson

Recently, the park held a town hall meeting with local farmers to talk about reintroducing fire to Grasslands, just like they reintroduced bison and black-footed ferrets. The burn plan would see 7,500 hectares go up in flames each year—a scary prospect for many ranchers. “In the last one hundred years,” Olson said, “the ranching population has been fighting fires to exist on this landscape. They’re rightly concerned about the use of fire in landscape management.”

Of course, there’s always been friction between commerce and conservation. Around the time plans for Grasslands National Park were being drawn, American geographer Deborah Popper and her husband Frank, now a professor of planning and public policy at Rutgers, wrote a controversial article that suggested the Great Plains of the U.S. be turned into a “buffalo commons.” They predicted that vast parts of the American West and Midwest would depopulate in the coming generation. “At that point,” they wrote, “a new use for the region will emerge, one that is in fact so old that it predates the American presence.” In the 19th century people replaced bison; now, the thinking went, bison should replace people. The Great Plains, the Poppers believed, wouldn’t be able to sustain an agricultural livelihood anyway.

Over the years, Parks Canada has bought up a section here, a quarter-section there, gradually expanding like a prairie sky. Many ranchers see the importance of grasslands conservation and, for its part, the park tries hard to be a good neighbour, working with landowners and even restoring a large sign for the historic Dixon Ranch.

Reintroducing bison to graze these fields was not merely to restore a landscape stripped of bison and other animals such as the Plains grizzly and Prairie wolf. The cattle that graze this area have not overwintered around here since 1906. Bison, on the other hand, can live outdoors through the cruellest months when the temperature can drop to the minus 80s after wind chill and there are no barns or woods for shelter. The last balsam poplar died years ago and there is said to be only a handful of trees—black cottonwoods—left in the park.

Their return marks more than a half century of effort to restore the grasslands. Bison are a keystone species, sitting at the top of an arch that would collapse without them. In winter, they blaze trails that other animals follow and use their foreheads to plough through snow to get at vegetation, freeing up food for smaller creatures. Migrating birds nest in toque-like shells of their hair, which is the second warmest fibre in North America. (Musk-ox is the first), and Sprague’s pipits like to lay their eggs on desiccated bison patties. There are more white-tailed deer.

The park’s biodiversity has made it one of the most studied conservation areas in Canada. In summer, graduate students who have come here to gather data take up residence in the village of Val Marie (pop: 137). The park is home to rare mixed grass prairie, the country’s only black-tailed Prairie dog colonies, and native black-footed ferrets—adorable coon-eyed creatures that were reintroduced in 2010 and are one of the North America’s most endangered mammals. (Their main source of food: Prairie dogs.)

At times, however, there can seem to be no animals in sight—just grass, buttes, and a blue Prairie sky that wraps around the edges of the park. It is “a distance without limits,” as Wallace Stegner wrote of the Prairies in his classic book Wolf Willow. This is perhaps part of the appeal, and may explain Olson’s favourite place to see the lay of the land: a plateau about 45 minutes into Grasslands, in a clearing near a branding pen for the Dixon Ranch. The area is along the Continental Divide. Waters to the north, he notes, go to Hudson Bay. Those to the south, flow toward the Gulf of Mexico. That day last spring he pulled his truck, like he had many times before, to the empty pen, and got out to scan the horizon. People from Saskatchewan like to joke that you can watch your dog runaway for three days.

That windy afternoon there were no stray dogs and only one bison near enough to see—a six-year-old male lolling in the grass, his heft bringing to mind a furry Jabba the Hutt. (The grass here is so rich that some of the herd is becoming obese.) His presence was a totem. Without the park there would be no bison; without the bison, the park would be a very different place.