What it Takes to Herd the Bison

What it Takes to Herd the Bison

 

“What is life? It is the flash of a firefly in the night. It is the breath of the buffalo in the wintertime. It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset.” 
Blackfoot Proverb
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Nowhere on Earth represents this proverb better than central southern Canada, a place where the breeze whispers through the long grasses, the chirrup of prairie dogs travels for miles and bison grunt throughout the night. Grasslands National Park is, as the name suggests, a plateau of preserved wild prairie grasses but then again it also so much more. Recognised as one of North America’s quietest and darkest spots, you can find ancient native tipi rings, dinosaur bones and fossilised marine life and easily spot a thick strip of K-T or out-of-space matter, the remnants of an asteroid that collided with Earth and wiped out the dinosaur era. Being a gateway into 65 million years of history it’s easy to see why Grasslands is one of the most precious places imaginable to a variety of professionals.
 What it takes to Herd the Bison, Grasslands National Park, Canada
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And then there’s the bison, whose near extinction from Canada is thankfully now making a u-turn. Arguably they are no better suited to anywhere than in the vast plains of the prairies where Parks Canada endeavoured to return them in 2006, assisted by the animals themselves who thrive from grazing on grasses and who happily endure Saskatchewan’s arctic winters. In fact they have done so well that Grasslands staff have had to keep an eye on their population exceeding the parks capacity and this predicament led them to open up a new job role in bison management.
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But who could be daring enough to accept that challenge?
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A local Saskatchewan of course.
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That local is a man called Ryan, he is currently one of the only people in the world to handle plains bison on this kind of scale, a 900 kilometre² park. Fortunately he invited me on a tour of his workplace to offer a little insight in how he manages to keep track of his herds.
 What it takes to Herd the Bison, Grasslands National Park, Canada
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After greeting me warmly, “Lets go and find some buddies of mine, we can chat along the way” Ryan immediately beckons me into an ATV, a disjointed off-road quad bike with a windshield and ceiling but no doors. We are soon off the road and racing through the grass, me just trying to brace myself into one position within the vehicle. “This area used to be swamped with bison, that’s why the Native American’s arrived here in the first place, they could hunt” Ryan informs. We continued to chat freely about the bisons ‘execution’ period, a tactic used by the US’s federal government in the late 1800’s. Alongside the profit to be gained from bison fur, if they killed most of the animals they’d gain control of the people whose lives depended upon them, the Native Americans.
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The settlers impact on local communities is a piece of history that Canada is still struggling to reconcile with.
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Ryan had been a ranch farmers son helping out with the family business before taking a position at  Grasslands National Park, after two years he took the brand new job upon himself. “I’ve had to adapt my Ranch owners perspective to a larger scale, we Saskatchewan’s are used to owning land but…” he pauses to laugh and gesture around “never quite this much land.”
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“Yeah, but at least you can’t lose bison” I add
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He laughs again, “You’d be surprised.”
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As if on cue we climb to the lip of one of the Grasslands many buttes, sure enough there are two lonesome Bison wallowing in the crevice. I get his point. “These are males, probably outcasts from the larger herds. They’re neither small enough to be considered young nor big enough to dominate anything, it’s a tough age for them.” I felt quite sorry for the two bulky beasts who continued to graze and swish their tales far below us, unaware of our presence. It also dawned upon me how wrongly I’d perceived this unique landscape, the prairie lands had sounded somewhat flatter and had even looked flat until we had come to rest on this vantage point. But now I could see the undulations, soft gashes carved through the plains reminding me that some of this basin was once underwater. An enormous grunt, carried by the sharp wind, brought me back to my senses. Retreating back into the ATV I ask “How do the Bison deal with winter?” and once again manage to amuse my host “ha, the Bison are fine, I have nothing to do for them, it’s me you’ve got to worry about. Nothing can prepare you for a minus 40 degree wind chill but we Saskatchewan’s rug up real well and I’ll be keeping my head down.” I shudder, being British I can’t imagine how anyone just ‘rugs up’ for that sort of cold, a cold which will freeze your skin if it’s exposed for more than minute. Ryan however, is oblivious to my look of shock “I can guarantee you though, even on the most bitter day I’ll find at least one bison, frosted with snow, standing on the highest point with his face to the wind. When I saw that the first time I knew they didn’t need me, they were fine. Plus because the snow doesn’t come thick here they always find food to eat.” The image of this obstinate bison makes me smile.
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What it takes to Herd the Bison, Grasslands National Park, Canada
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We’ve just arrived at a riverbed and I refrain from asking further questions for fear I might distract Ryan and send us swimming. I needn’t have worried, our all-wheel monster seemingly grabs both sides of the bank and I breathe a sigh of relief to remain dry. Despite being thrown every which way or perhaps because of it, it’s exciting to be off road, tracing bison in their tracks beside the short grasses where the prairie dogs are busy chirruping to one another of our arrival before disappearing into burrows. Above us is a baby blue sky, seemingly more expansive than ever due to our unobscured view of it. I’m admiring a few white whips of clouds when Ryan relaxes the throttle, “Ah, here we are” he signals and points to a group of black dots some few hundred metres away. With a twinkle in his eyes he half challenges me to leave the safety of the vehicle “now let’s see how we go baiting.”
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It’s not all hands on, there’s a bit of study there too, and Ryan has had to do a bit of research for his role while also quizzing local bison farmers and other National Parks in how exactly he is supposed to monitor his herd. Grassland National Park needs to make a yearly gathering of their colossal friends in order to count them, check for disease and cordon off the excess and obviously, this does not happen easily. Ryan has decided to share the one trick he has up his sleeve, for the past two years he has been baiting the bison, not to feed them but to familiarise them with his presence and voice and, very importantly, to be able to attract them towards their enclosure. “Baiting the bison and being able to move the herds makes herding them not easy but certainly possible.” Within seconds of making a small sharp “Ho!” it’s obvious that he has grabbed our herds attention but only as the dust rises and those small dark specs become bigger and bigger do I understand that we are about to have a close encounter. Ryan grabs one of the large food sacks “stay close to the ATV, they know me a little better” he warns and I am more than happy to oblige. Sprinkling grassy looking nuggets onto the ground he calls once more but I feel he needn’t have, small medium and very large bison are eagerly on their way. Their hot breath vaporised into the cool air and I was surprised to see how awkward they looked walking with such muscular bodies and thighs upon very thin ankles. Pairs upon pairs of black beady pupils peered at me from within a thick wooly mane but after a momentary pause of apprehension they ignored me, who was trying my best to blend in with the ATV, and took eagerly to the scattered nuggets.
What it takes to Herd the Bison, Grasslands National Park, Canada
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“Is that bison chocolate?” I whisper to Ryan.
“It is for now” he replies “but bison aren’t easy and so I have to make sure not to over-bait them. There is nothing that they particularly love so if I feed them this more than once a week they’ll start seeing grass as a more delicious option and it’ll be ineffective.
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Who’d have thought the half-wooly, horned mammal would be a fickle vegetarian.
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What it takes to Herd the Bison, Grasslands National Park, Parks Canada
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We take a tour of the enclosure, for someone who has never stepped a foot inside a farm it is a bewildering array of containment areas, channels, separation cubicles, gates and lots and lots of buttons to control it all. There are elevated walkways and platforms from which Ryan and his team operate the gates and cubicles but I remain uncertain how you get the bison going. “I thought that would be my most difficult task but if I’m up here” he positioned himself at a button controller “and give them a look they just move.” Barely tilting his head he casts a sideways glance into the empty channels, now it’s my turn to laugh “That’s it.”
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“That’s it.”
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Who’d have thought the muscular, heavy weight prince would be so sensitive.
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Driving back to my teepee camp we skirt beside the same group of bison we’d baited, they were still on the move, perhaps looking for water. In their haste they’d kicked up a huge cloud of dust that rose high into the air and my breath caught in my throat to watch them. There is no sight more impressive than watching an animal enjoy life in the land where it belongs.
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What it takes to Herd the Bison, Grasslands National Park, Parks Canada

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We’ve written a few more articles and stories on Grasslands National Park if you’re interested in reading more.
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Written by

Rebecca Mayoll is a ‘just turned 30’ freelance writer and photographer from England. She is the co-founder and author of straightondetour.com, a travel website with the mantra ‘find your own adventure.’ Promoting adventurous destinations, independent travel and giving a humorous insight to the World of travel is what Becky does best.

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