Bison Back from Brink of Extinction

AS MUCH as a 400-lb. animal can be said to frolic, that's what 50 BISON calves have been doing since they arrived on the rolling flatlands of southwestern Saskatchewan in mid-December.

Bison, Back from Brink of Extinction

AS MUCH as a 400-lb. animal can be said to frolic, that's what 50 BISON calves have been doing since they arrived on the rolling flatlands of southwestern Saskatchewan in mid-December. Offspring of one of the few purebred plains bison herds in Canada, the calves were trucked from Elk Island National Park, near Edmonton, and set loose on rangeland that retired rancher Peter Butala and his wife, author Sharon Butala, donated to the Nature Conservancy of Canada in 1996. Now, as humans and livestock in the area seek shelter from temperatures dipping as low as -40ºC, the bison can be seen sprinting about, kicking up their hooves and playing in the snow. "They seem," says Sharon, "perfectly at home."

As well they might. The calves are direct descendants of the original North American buffalo that roamed the Great Plains for thousands of years. Once numbering in the millions, the majestic mammals were brought to the brink of extinction during the 19th century in perhaps the greatest animal slaughter - the word is not too harsh - in history. That the species survived is a credit to dogged conservation efforts on both sides of the border, and the fledgling Saskatchewan herd is the latest example. "The revival of the buffalo is a North American success story," says Valerius Geist, a University of Calgary professor emeritus and author of Buffalo Nation: History and Legend of the North American Bison. "It's a tremendous achievement."

What makes the Saskatchewan calves so special is that they are the first Canadian buffalo herd in more than a century on the Great Plains, a region stretching from the centre of the continent to the Rocky Mountains, and from southern Texas to northern Saskatchewan. The project represents a fortunate confluence of conservation interests. Upon retirement, Peter Butala didn't want the sprawling ranch that had been in his family since 1913 to be subdivided and farmed. So he turned to the Nature Conservancy, a non-profit agency that helps save natural areas. The conservancy assumed control over 5,240 hectares that had been owned or leased by the Butalas and are now preserved as one large, unbroken tract of mixed grassland. Bringing the buffalo back was considered key to restoring the area to its pre-settlement state. To that end, the conservancy approached the Canadian Wildlife Service and Parks Canada, which for years had been looking for a way to return the purebred bison to its historic range.

While estimates of the buffalo's peak population vary wildly (anywhere from 10 million to 70 million), early 19th-century accounts abound with descriptions of single herds numbering in the tens of thousands, darkening the prairie as far as the eye could see. For the Plains Indians, the buffalo - North America's largest land mammal, with an average adult male weighing 1,800 lb. - represented an essential source of food, clothing and shelter.

But the inexorable push of settlers westward changed all that. The building of continental railways in both Canada and the United States provided easy access for anyone who wanted to shoot buffalo - and there was no shortage of takers. Commercial hunters killed the animals primarily for their hides, used to make highly coveted buffalo coats. They left behind carcasses that slowly decayed into piles of buffalo bones, making the prairie so white some said it looked as if it were covered in snow even in summertime.

In the United States, the decimation of the buffalo was part of a deliberate, and successful, effort to starve the Plains Indians into submission. As Geist recounts in his book, many high-ranking U.S. officials were explicit about their intentions. "The civilization of the Indian is impossible while the buffalo remains upon the plains," declared secretary of the interior Columbus Delano in 1873. Two years later, Gen. Philip Sheridan told a joint session of Congress that buffalo hunters had done more to settle what he called "the vexed Indian question" than the entire U.S. army. Sheridan urged the politicians to continue to support the hunters. "For the sake of lasting peace," he said, "let them kill, skin and sell until the buffaloes are exterminated."

The Canadian government didn't go after the buffalo quite so vigorously. But commercial over-hunting to supply the fur trade achieved much the same result. In both countries, the demise of an animal that had dominated the landscape for so long proved astonishingly swift - by 1890, only a few hundred head remained.

That might have been the end of the story but for a handful of individuals who captured odd survivors and started their own herds. Among them were two Montana ranchers, Michel Pablo and Charles Allard, who spent more than 20 years patiently assembling the largest collection of purebred bison on the continent (by the time of Allard's death in 1896, the herd numbered 300). In 1907, after U.S. authorities declined to buy the herd, Pablo struck a deal with the Canadian government and shipped most of his bison northward to the newly created Elk Island National Park. Two years later, all but 45 of the animals were sent to a larger facility in Wainwright, Alta., where they interbred with the larger, and equally threatened, northern wood bison. Most of today's purebred plains bison, including the Saskatchewan calves, originated with those few dozen animals left behind at Elk Island.

While human folly nearly destroyed the buffalo in the 19th century, the next 100 years served as kind of collective mea culpa. International wildlife conservation treaties came into effect. National, provincial and state parks were set aside as preserves for conservation herds. And bison hunting was either banned entirely or strictly controlled. Along the way mistakes were certainly made: some conservation herds have contracted contagious diseases, including bovine tuberculosis and brucellosis, and mass slaughters designed to contain such outbreaks proved extremely controversial. All the same, the North American buffalo is no longer on the brink of extinction: in Canada alone it's estimated there are now at least 1,500 purebred plains bison on public lands along with another 4,200 purebred wood bison (and 4,800 mixed-breed animals).

At the same time, bison ranching has expanded dramatically on both sides of the border, to the point where there are now an estimated 500,000 head in private hands (one of the largest herds is owned by CNN founder Ted Turner). Using surplus stock from the conservation herds, the industry has routinely crossbred plains and wood bison with each other, as well as with cattle, in an attempt to produce larger, more efficient animals (bison meat is touted by many as a lean, high-protein, low-cholesterol alternative to beef). But Geist, for one, is concerned that widespread game ranching poses a potential threat to purebred herds through inadvertent gene contamination and disease. "We have to remain vigilant," he says. "Without proper supervision, disasters can happen."

For this reason, Geist applauds the decision to move the purebred bison calves to Saskatchewan. Spreading out the herd geographically, he says, helps protect the gene pool and lessen the risk of extinction due to some local catastrophe. Others have more romantic notions of why it's good for the plains bison to be back in its natural habitat. "There are a lot of us who dream of the way the West was before settlement," says Sharon Butala, who's working on a new non-fiction book called Lilac Moon: Dreaming of the Real West. "When we look out, we don't see big tractors plowing up the grasslands. We see phantom bison." Now, she and her husband can view the real thing. And, like the frolicking calves, they couldn't be happier.

Maclean's February 16, 2004