Bison Blunder

Newfoundland once qualified as a “remote island,” its ecosystem forming more or less free of the continent, largely lacking in mammals and catering heavily to birds and marine life. In the absence of predators these animals of wing and fin flourished, giving rise to the feathered kingdom described by some of our earliest explorers.

But we’ve changed all that, mixing and matching its inhabitants with those of the mainland and allowing what surrounding ocean should have prevented – the invasion of voles, mice, mink, rats and most famously moose. These small predators made a feast of local birds while the moose had devastating consequences on local vegetation, overpopulating and overgrazing such species as the Balsam fir.

Ian Jones, professor of biology at Memorial University, told me that an entire 10 per cent of North America’s moose are on Newfoundland alone, a staggering number, even for an ecosystem out of balance. He told me also that 90 per cent of our region’s seabirds nest on small islands off Newfoundland’s eastern shore, out of reach for minks and rats. So what Newfoundland itself must have hosted in centuries teases the imagination.

In short, our rearranging of an island’s ecology had tremendous consequences, many of which we’ve only come to appreciate in recent years. But in the case of Newfoundland, already unrecognisable from its former self, we came dangerously close to yet another disastrous introduction.

In 1964, for reasons maddeningly unscientific, a small herd of Plains bison left Elk Island National Park, Alberta, destined for our easternmost province. It took some digging to learn their story, but in the end I found two sources – Introducing the Brunette Island Bison by journalist Martin Connelly, published in 2012 with the Newfoundland Quarterly, and the exceptional thoroughness of the Encyclopedia of Newfoundland and Labrador , Volume 1, published in 1981.

It was decided some time ago that aspects of Newfoundland’s ecology weren’t being used to their fullest potential – at least not by us – specifically those grasses and sedges left uneaten by introduced moose and native caribou. The bison might fill this role, it was thought, converting “wasteland” into big game. In the minds of some, this amounted to a boondoggle, while to me it represented an irresponsible risk to Newfoundland’s natural heritage.

The champions of this effort at least had the forethought to test their hypothesis before bison reached the mainland, establishing them instead on the southerly Island of Brunette, on June 11, 1964, nestled in Fortune Bay. Twenty-four of them survived the trip from Alberta – five bulls and nineteen females, only eighteen of whom reached Brunette. One broke free of its cage while at sea and promptly drowned, a death so far outside her experience that I feel a great deal of pity for her. And their incongruities with this island home didn’t stop there.

After such a long journey in the company of their own faeces, an additional four died of parasite buildup within two weeks of their arrival. As time passed it became apparent these bison didn’t appreciate the perils of Maritime cliffs, collapsing under them as they grazed the edge and resulting in terminal wounds. Winter took its casualties as well and a great many others simply disappeared. Within a year, only thirteen bison remained.

By 1967 eight were left, and in spite of a few modest births, the population dropped to five individuals by 1981. By this time the bison project was abandoned, their introduction to the mainland losing its appeal and their surviving members left to the mercy of Brunette Isle. Across the country we dragged them, only to forsake them on shores they had no business inhabiting. It doesn’t take an activist to consider this inhumane.

The very last of these bison, a solitary bull known as the Salt Water Buffalo, disappeared by the winter of 1996, ending a dangerous experiment which should never have been undertaken. The reshaping of Newfoundland and other tracks of Atlantic Canada has been justified in a variety of ways, some valid and others less so, but to me none justify the compromising of local ecology, the fallout of which leaves us disenfranchised in ways significant and indirect. While I’m sorry for the bison lost to this endeavour, I’m grateful they were never set loose on the mainland. I think their footprints would have been bigger than we realize.

Zack Metcalfe is a freelance journalist, columnist and author active across the Maritimes. This article was originally published in the Pictou Advocate.

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