When I was growing up in Saskatchewan, the only bison I remember were the stuffed specimens in provincial museum dioramas -- massive, shaggy beasts behind glass in papier mâché prairies.
The first live animal I saw was in Prince Albert National Park, from the back seat of our 1965 Rambler, during a family vacation. Later, there were buffalo in zoos or in other captive herds, from Yellowstone in the U.S. to the now-defunct paddock near Banff. It was only in the 1990s, writing about the ranching of bison, that I had a chance to observe these magnificent animals up close -- this time from the cab of a pickup truck in a small pasture on the outskirts of Calgary.
But were these calm cows -- huddled against the Chinook wind and munching barley -- really the same animals that once defined the North American prairie ecosystem? It's a debate that continues to rage between environmentalists and bison ranchers, wildlife purists and food purveyors, even as Parks Canada is poised to release 70 of the country's handful of wild animals into the prairie landscape of Grasslands National Park during a special ceremony on May 24 near Val Marie, Sask.
The historic reintroduction will provide a wildlife-viewing experience that, among other things, aims to enhance the beauty of the Canadian plains. W. O. Mitchell called the prairie landscape "the least common denominators of nature," and that's what it is at Grasslands -- just the land meeting the sky as far as the eye can see, with no fences in sight.
It's been about 150 years since North America's largest land mammal roamed on this particular stretch of southwestern Saskatchewan.
They were once so numerous in these parts that early explorers described "rivers" of thundering animals -- thousands if not millions of the massive beasts moving over the flatlands to the far horizon.
In fact, most estimates suggest there were once 60 million plains bison ranging through a swath stretching from Alaska to Mexico.
Grasslands, an 11,000-hectare park in southwestern Saskatchewan and one of the largest remaining tracts of undisturbed natural grassland in Canada, is a logical place to let wild bison roam free again -- or at least as free as they can be in this day and age.
But even here, says park superintendent Cheryl Penny, the undulating prairie is surrounded by special fences to keep the bison from wandering out of the area and disturbing neighbouring farmers, eating their hay or trampling their crops.
Indeed, this is precisely why there are really no wild ranging herds of prairie bison left on the Canadian plains, no bison poking through my prairie garden along with the resident moose and deer.
The Homestead Act of 1908, which promised settlers free land if they agreed to break, fence and farm the prairie, made it impossible for large free-ranging herds of bison to exist. That, and the U.S. government's 19th-century campaign to exterminate the bison to control the First Nations people by destroying their bison-based lifestyle, literally brought this incredibly well-adapted animal to the brink of extinction in just a few decades.
It may seem ironic, then, that Canada's federal government can be credited with saving the species in this country. After buying some of the last remaining animals from a private herd in Montana in 1906, it established a game preserve at Elk Island near Edmonton (now the country's smallest national park), creating the herd that has since thrived and multiplied. Elk Island animals have been used to establish wild bison populations in Prince Albert National Park and Old Man on His Back Prairie & Heritage Conservation Area in Saskatchewan, and are the stock that will be at the core of a new wild population at Grasslands.
With only about 1,000 plains bison left in the wild in Canada, however, ranchers have argued that farming the species has saved it. There are now some 250,000 plains bison being raised on farms in Canada for their meat, mostly in Alberta and Saskatchewan. Driving south from Calgary, it's easy to spot the animals roaming in the pastures along the foothills (not unlike their distant bovine relatives, domestic cattle). And it's easy to find bison on the menu in restaurants throughout Western Canada, whether it's lean bison tenderloin steaks in fine dining rooms or buffalo burgers at more casual spots.
But some environmentalists and scientists take a different view. Groups like the Alberta Wilderness Association were vocally critical when the federal government failed to add the prairie bison to the list of animals protected by the Species at Risk Act last year, owing to the potential negative economic impact to the bison-farming industry. Even if farmed bison are genetically identical to wild bison, selection over time will change the animal's look, behaviour and size, the AWA said, forever changing the species.
To confuse the issue further, the Canadian arm of the international Slow Food movement recently added range-fed plains bison to the "Canadian Ark of Taste," recognizing that bison raised entirely on wild prairie grass (and not finished in feedlots like cattle) are a vanishing breed for the chef and consumer and, like the indigenous prairie, deserve protection.
The new Grasslands herd will roam over open prairie, coulees and river valley, and superintendent Penny says naturalists are keen to learn how the animals will interact with the park's rare black-tailed prairie dogs, and how their grazing and wallowing will open the grasslands to new plant species. Visitors, meanwhile, can drive a gravel road that bisects the western block of the park, or hike the unmarked landscape with the help of a guidebook and a good GPS. Stay in your car to watch bison -- they are large, and may charge -- or give them a wide berth if you encounter them on the trail.
Unlike obviously dramatic geography, the prairie vista is subtle and you must look differently to really see its beauty. Stop, sit down in the tall grass and stay low to observe the antics of barking prairie dogs, or watch the wind turn the sea of golden grasses into a vast ripple of undulating waves. And who knows? You may even spot the buffalo.
Pack your bags
GRASSLANDS NATIONAL PARK
Hugging the U.S. border in southwestern Saskatchewan, Grasslands is a 90-minute drive south of Swift Current and about four hours from Regina. For more information, call 306-298-2257 or visit pc.gc.ca/grasslands.
The mixed-grass prairie ecosystem is home to rare prairie wildlife such as burrowing owls, sage grouse and swift fox. The bison will be released into the park's 17,800-hectare West Block on May 24. The public can view the animals as they are being released, or can hike through areas near the gravel road that traverses the area. There are no campgrounds in the park, but random tent camping is permitted and there is accommodation in Val Marie.
MORE BISON VIEWING
Elk Island National Park: Less than an hour east of Edmonton; 780-92-2950; http://www.pc.gc.ca/elkisland. The park has herds of both plains and the slightly smaller wood bison. It's quite likely that you will actually encounter the animals on one of the hiking trails, or you can visit in the late fall when the bison are rounded up for disease testing and vaccination.
Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump: 165 kilometres south of Calgary; 403-553-2731; head-smashed-in.com. Native people used the sandstone cliffs around this World Heritage Site to hunt Buffalo for more than 6,000 years. The $10-million interpretive centre is staffed by aboriginal guides.