BISON - Canadian Conservation Success

The reintroduction of bison to the Canadian plains constitutes a major conservation success story. There are currently over 250,000 bison on Canadian farms, ranches and public lands.

Millions once roamed the plains

Prior to European settlement, millions of bison roamed the plains of North America – with the numbers on the Canadian prairies alone estimated as high as 10 million animals. The herds were so vast that early European travelers to the region often reported that their wagon trains could travel for days without losing sight of buffalo herds. But that would end -- by the close of the 19th century there were virtually no plains bison left on the Canadian prairies. The mass extermination was primarily the result of unrestricted hunting and weak, largely un-enforced government conservation measures. The Canadian herds could not withstand the combined pressures of subsistence hunting by native people and the fur trade’s demand for buffalo hides and pemmican.

Remarkably, a handful of “wood bison”, a regional variant of the species with a range that once included the forested regions of northern Alberta, northwest Saskatchewan, parts of the Yukon and southern Northwest Territories, managed to survive the slaughter.

Conservation begins with ranchers

Significant conservation measures were eventually taken by the Canadian government to protect the wood bison including the creation, in 1922, of Wood Buffalo National Park, a massive ecological preserve that straddles the Alberta –Northwest Territories border. Returning plains bison to Canada’s prairie provinces ultimately required the importation of animals from the United States. The survival of small remnant populations of plains bison in the U.S. was initially due to the efforts of conservation minded cattle ranchers, later supported by conservationists and the managers of zoological parks. Fewer than 300 buffalo were left to be protected when the wave of ranchers and homesteaders occupied the plains that had once been the domain of millions of bison and the bands of native people whose livelihoods depended on the herds.

Plains bison return to Canada

The first sizeable herd of plains bison to be returned to the Canadian prairies arrived between 1909 and 1912, purchased from a Montana rancher by the Canadian government. A smaller herd had been established at Banff National Park in 1887. The 716 Montana animals were initially kept at Buffalo National Park, located near Wainwright, Alberta. 

A mistake along the way

Following the disestablishment of the park at Wainwright in the 1920s, some of the plains bison were moved to Elk Island National Park near Edmonton with the majority transported to Wood Buffalo National Park. Unfortunately, the transportation of animals to the Wood Buffalo Park resulted in a conservation nightmare. There has been interbreeding between the wood bison native to the Park and the newly arrived plains animals, prompting concern that there are very few pure wood bison left in Wood Buffalo today. Equally distressing is the likelihood that the introduced plains bison were responsible for infecting the wood animals with tuberculosis and brucellosis, diseases that threaten the long-term survival of the herd. The 1958 discovery of a group of pure wood bison in an isolated corner of the park provided the foundation for two pure wood herds which were re-located at Elk Island National Park and the MacKenzie Bison Sanctuary in the North West Territories. Elk Island’s plains and wood herds were wisely maintained in separate enclosures to prevent cross breeding. Both herds prospered, becoming an important foundation for plains and wood bison recovery, providing thousands of animals as seed stock for Canada’s emerging bison ranching industry.

Commercial bison ranching expands

By the mid-point of the 20th century many new bison herds had been established in national and provincial parks and zoos.  The population of bison in the public herds naturally expanded beyond the capacity of the various parks and zoos to adequately support their animals. Surplus bison were occasionally offered for sale to a handful of farmers and ranchers in western Canada who were interested in raising bison. At first, many of these pioneering bison ranchers, kept the animals because they were enthralled by the intrinsic beauty and historic significance of the buffalo as opposed to a commercial activity. A similar process was underway in the United States. By the 1970s hundreds of surplus park animals in the U.S. were being sold to ranchers every year. In the early 1980s Canada’s Elk Island Park began regularly offering surplus plains bison to agricultural producers. As more and more farmers and ranchers acquired bison, it became clear that they could play an important role in the preservation and expansion of both plains and wood bison populations. North America’s bison population grew from several thousand animals located mostly on public parkland in the 1950s to over half a million animals by 2001—with the vast majority being raised on farms and ranches.

Preserving native prairie and turning crop land into pasture

In addition to increasing the buffalo population in Canada, the bison industry has played an important role in preserving the last remaining islands of native grassland on the Canadian plains. Shortly after the huge free roaming bison herds were hunted to near extinction, the ecology of the prairies was substantially altered by farming.  The ecologically rich prairie sod was permanently changed by cultivation. Very little unspoiled native prairie remains, the little that there is has been preserved by cattle ranchers and more recently commercially raised bison for grazing.  In addition to preserving native grasslands, bison producers have been responsible for seeding hundreds of thousands of hectares of cultivated land “back to grass”. While re grassed pastures do not represent a perfect return to nature, they do offer many conservation and environmental benefits. For example, soil erosion is prevented, and many species – everything from fungi and insects to ground squirrels and deer are provided with habitat that is far more suitable for their year-round use than cultivated land.

Meat sales provide a sustainable economic base.

As the farm and ranch herds in Canada and the U.S. expanded, agricultural producers confronted the same population management problems that the public herds had experienced. There are limits to the pasture resources on any given farm or ranch. Once a block of range land’s capacity to adequately support its bison population has been exceeded, surplus animals present a management challenge. While bison producers were grappling with expanding herds, consumers in North America and Europe were becoming increasingly concerned about the quality of the food they were eating. At the same time, new research was demonstrating the nutritional benefits of bison meat. Bison was a good fit with the trend of consumer concerns over fat and cholesterol and unnatural additives, it was naturally high in iron, and bison were being raised naturally without growth hormones and antibiotic supplements, spending most of their lives on the open rangelands of the west.

Marketing pioneers

In the mid-1970s pioneering food marketers including Claude Bouvry of Calgary, Alberta teamed up with pioneering bison ranchers like Ross Adam of Grande Prairie to introduce bison meat to food retailers in Europe and North America. What began as a trickle of sales into high-end restaurants grew steadily to the present – bison meat is now available at major family restaurant chains and grocery stores in many markets. The success of bison as a consumer meat product solved the surplus animal challenge for farmers and ranchers and encouraged even more agricultural producers to view bison as a sensible way to get more involved in environmentally and economically sustainable agricultural practices. 

Producer associations formed

Bison producers in Canada banded together in 1983 to form the Canadian Bison Association (CBA) to support producers in what was a rapidly expanding industry. Today, the CBA and its provincial affiliates are the voice of an industry with over 1,500 producers who have over 250,000 bison on their farms and ranches.  The remarkable evolution of Canada’s bison industry over the past three decades represents an important development in the sustainable agriculture movement and stands as the driving force behind the conservation of bison and their return to virtually every neighbourhood on the Canadian plains.

Future challenges

Currently, conservationists and bison producer associations are developing strategies that will sustain bison conservation into the future. The CBA and conservation groups are currently engaged in efforts to ensure that bison retain their wild nature in a modern west where highway traffic and agricultural crops require that herds be contained by fences -- in neighborhoods where large predators like the grizzly bear and wolf no longer hunt and naturally cull the herds. Conservation minded bison producers are working to ensure that codes of practice are developed that limit the sort of genetic selection and “improvement” techniques typical to other areas of livestock production. Canada’s bison producers see a future with a large and thriving naturally raised bison population that forms a key component of a sustainable Canadian agriculture industry.