Few species are as iconically North American as the Plains bison, once numbering 30 million strong from central Alberta to northern Mexico, from the Rockies in the west to Washington City in the east.
It’s extraordinary to me that European settlement could have been so unforgiving to this magnificent ruminant, stealing away its prairie habitat and hunting them within a few dozen members of extinction. All those persevering today are descended from the 85 individuals who survived our onslaught by 1888, bred in the confines of federal protection until numerous enough for reintroduction.
Today this species is considered threatened in Canada, its few wild herds gaining ground almost exclusively in national parks. In June I had the great pleasure of visiting the most authentic of these, preserved on the southern border of Saskatchewan.
Grasslands National Park exists in two halves – East and West block as they’re known – and are at very different stages of completion. As a consequence, the Plains bison has only been reintroduced to West Block, and even they only have access to a third of its landmass. Bison fencing and specialty gateways keep them from roaming onto surrounding farmland, or onto plains as yet unready for them. But in time, it’s hoped, the entirety of West Block will be theirs.
Plains bison were eradicated from this region in the 1850s or thereabouts, leaving an ecological gap not so easily filled. As it was explained to me by learned park staffer Sam Fischer:
“I don’t think we can conceive of the a herd, numbering in the millions, grazing these prairies down to nothing. The Plains bison were responsible for creating these mosaics we call the mixed grass ecosystem, with tall grass here and short grass here. Without the bison, you don’t have that level of disturbance. Our birds, especially those with very specific habitat requirements, benefit from this bison grazing. So not only have we seen a huge retraction in the extent of the mixed grass prairie, we’ve also seen this loss of [diversity].”
The grazing services left vacant by the bison were carried on to some extend by cattle, but when the park began purchasing land in 1984, no ruminants at all were left to maintain the mixed grass ecosystem and it overgrew, evicting a great many species. The Plains bison, bouncing back from the edge of extinction, returned to West Block in May of 2006 where they promptly bled to capacity, roughly 350 head, grazing these lands back to health.
Come in calving season, as I did, and the herd will have retreated deep into the unending hills of green and yellow grasses which define this park, but a few males, leading no harems of their own, can still be found near the dirt roads of West Block, particularly at dusk.
When I set out in late afternoon the potential of this park was made clear to me. One could see for kilometres and if your eyes were sharp, plentiful wildlife is often in view. They may be no more than specks on the horizon, but try your luck and a couple of those specks may be right in your path.
I saw my first two bison of the evening mounting a hill ahead and directly behind them was the setting sun, lighting their backgrounds on fire as happens in cinema, or in the dreams of a photographer. I left the vehicle which conveyed me, traded the road for adjacent grass and ran for my best angle. Another journalist, equally excited, came as well.
I don’t think either of us could believe our luck as we promptly lost ourselves in the effort of documentation. That both these behemoths, weighing an average of 700 kg each, were marching directly toward us seemed a photographic convenience, and even when I admired these wild animals with my eyes rather than my camera, their approach filled me with awe rather than concern. After a while my colleague tapped me on the shoulder and whispered for my attention.
“Yeah?” I asked, camera still pressed against my face.
“Zack, the bison are officially closer than the car,” he said, and the cautionary stories of charging bison came readily to mind, shared with us by Parks Canada staff who’d been on the receiving end. Most of these charges turn out to be an attempt to scare you off and not a genuine effort at collision, but one does not gamble with wildlife so formidable.
“Should we go back?” I asked him, and he shrugged.
“Either that or we need to have a serious conversation.”
“About which of us can run faster.”
These bison, thankfully, didn’t tested our good humour, approaching more with curiosity than with malice. I returned to the car reluctantly, but a short distance down the road found still more, some right next to the vehicle, grazing contently as they did hundreds of years prior. Some would stop and lock eyes with me, a spiritual encounter more meaningful than the physical. Of all the spectacular species to dodge extinction, this one is among my favourites. It’s my sincere hope that they retake much of their prairie home, so this park, in all its authentic majesty, need not rank among their only safe havens.
Zack Metcalfe is a freelance journalist, author, and writer active across the Maritimes. This article was originally published with the South Shore Breaker.