“Like Distant Thunder: Canada’s Bison Conservation Story”

After years of work, I’m pleased to announce the publication of my book Like Distant Thunder: Canada’s Bison Conservation Story!

eng_cv_870_18.jpg

Those who know me well know that I am always eager to share stories of bison history. Like Distant Thunder gathers together stories of bison conservation in what is now Canada, with a focus on the origins of the herds now protected by Parks Canada. These are tales full of twists and turns, successes and mistakes, and of course people with amazing names.

Much has been said about individual bison herds like Yellowstone, but I feel the stories north of the Medicine Line haven’t been told nearly as much. The story of wood bison in particular, the lesser-known but larger of the two subspecies of North American bison, is hardly discussed by historians. I’ve also come to learn a lot about what came to be known as the Pablo-Allard herd and its importance. An estimated 80% of plains bison today are descended from Pablo-Allard stock via either Elk Island or the National Bison Range in the US. Elk Island National Park has played an important role in bringing back both plains bison and wood bison from the brink of extinction. If you’ve seen a bison in Canada today, odds are they had an ancestor who passed through Elk Island. What came to be known as the Pablo-Allard herd initially began with the capture of a small number of bison calves by Indigenous men (Samuel Walking Coyote, or possibly/probably Peregrine Falcon Robe) in what is now Montana. These bison were raised by Metis men (Michel Pablo and Charles Allard), who expanded the herd until it was the largest and most genetically diverse bison herd in all of North America. Since 1907 they have been protected by Canadian national park staff. Getting these bison to Canada? Well, that’s an exciting story that deserves to be its own movie.

While studying at Carleton University I became particularly interested in the history of photography and the use (and misuse) of images of the past. Because of that, I was very conscious of my choice of images to illustrate this text. I’d like to draw your attention to the following images:

One of the things I find most fascinating about the history of bison conservation is how very nearly it came to failure on multiple occasions. All bison herds today (plains and wood bison) are descended from about 7 discrete populations: wild-caught and raised herds (Bedson/McKay, Buffalo Jones, Goodnight, Pablo-Allard, a handful of others) and wild herds that had national parks formed around them (Wood Buffalo National Park and Yellowstone National Park). When we say that bison were on “the brink of extinction”, we really mean it. It’s only due to a lot of hard work that bison still live in the world today.

I also wanted to highlight the continuous role of Indigenous people in bison conservation all the way through to today. Too often textbooks only speak of First Nations in their introductions and first chapters. From Walking Coyote to Michel Pablo to signatories of the Buffalo Treaty, Indigenous people have continued to protect bison through to the present day. The importance of bison to different Indigenous cultures isn’t a thing of the past; it’s an ongoing relationship that still informs the activism and actions of people today.

When I speak about this history in brief with visitors, I often say that many people know a little bit about the history of bison. They know that bison were important to First Nations people, that there used to be a lot of them, and that bison nearly went extinct. What I want to do with this work and in my interpretation is to fill in a bit of detail in that picture, but also to tell the sequel to the story that people kind of half know: what’s happened to bison since their historic lows of the 1890s, and how they came to be here on the landscape today.

Like Distant Thunder has been published by Parks Canada. Because it’s a government of Canada publication, it is of course available in both official languages. It was expertly translated into French by Claudine Cyr from the Translation Bureau. I swear some of the passages are even more evocative in French than in my English! If you are a French reader I highly encourage you to read that version as well.

We currently an to print Like Distant Thunder in the fall, but digital versions are currently available for free on Elk Island National Park’s website. Below are the download links. I recommend the PDF version on desktop computers and tablets, for printing, and to admire the beautiful layout. The PDF versions are how I intended this book to be read. There are also HTML versions, which are for accessibility: good for visually impaired folks using readers, or if you are reading it on your phone and would find HTML easier to read.

Please enjoy! Don’t hesitate to contact me to start a conversation about the fascinating history of bison conservation.

Advertisements

Do Not Present a Gruesome Spectacle: Filming Bison for Hollywood at Elk Island in 1955

Sometimes you just stumble across surprising documents. I was cleaning out a series of boxes of older documents stored in the Astotin Theatre at Elk Island National Park. Inside were poorly organized slides from the 1970s and 1980s, photocopies of posters for special event day programming in the 1980s and 1990s (buffalo chip flip competitions were apparently a regular thing!), and even folders of documents from the 1930s – 1960s on fish in Astotin Lake and rental documents for long-demolished cabins. But one folder in particular caught my attention as I leafed through it.

It was labelled “Motion Pictures” and all of its contents dated from the mid-1950s. The long and short of it is that I rediscovered the fact that Elk Island’s bison were filmed for the 1956 Hollywood film “The Searchers”, starring John Wayne. Skip ahead to 2:08 in this trailer and you can even see a clip of some of them, filmed in what appears to be the Hay Meadows near what is now the Bison Loop:

Most of the correspondence in this folder was addressed to or from Dr. B.I. Love, who was the superintendent of Elk Island at the time and was a trained veterinarian. He was very concerned that the bison not be put under stress by the film crew:

1953 Filming of the buffalo screenshot

Point number 5 is really interesting to me, as I know that there was some controversy over the welfare animals filmed at the now-defunct Buffalo National Park in the 1920s and 1930s. You can see a shot from the 1920s of bison running over a cameraman in a trench in this 1985 NFB documentary. (Skip to about 25 minutes in.)

Slaughter of buffalo
Why were the RCMP there? I’m not sure of their role in this specific context, but for other culls in the 1930s – 1950s, the RCMP were often the ones to receive the hides, to be made into their winter uniform coats.

Looking at the records, it seems like John Wayne himself never set foot at Elk Island, but several shots of the bison were included in the movie. It also seems that several bison were slaughtered for the film, too, under the supervision of both Elk Island staff and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to animals. This slaughter took place at the height of the brucellosis problems at Elk Island (which has been disease free since 1972) and at the time, the herd overpopulation issues were largely managed through controlled culls, not live transfers as it is today. These were apparently bison that were slated to be slaughtered anyway.

Slaughter telegram
“You may permit killing two animals under conditions which are humane and which will not present gruesome spectacle and cause undesirable criticisms against this service. Meat can be utilized for park consumption.”

I’m curious if it was the slaughtering that was filmed, or if the producers just needed bison carcasses for a scene. I suppose I’ll have to just track down a copy of the film and see for myself!

A Bison Called Old Pink Eye

Historical newspapers seem to love talking about charismatic bull bison, characterising them as curmudgeonly grumps and giving them cool names. I uncovered this great account of an older bull at Elk Island National Park in 1908 in the Edmonton Bulletin. I get exhilarated just reading about this epic bison battle, nearly 110 years later:

the-buffalo-at-elk-park-edmonton-bulletin-august-1908
“The king of the largest herd in the park is Pink Eye, a mammoth bull, who is known to be 29 years old, and who may be several years older. He is a monarch without doubt. He rules his herd with a rod of iron. He is an autocrat. . . . Pink Eye is loved because he gives voice to a profoundly continuous roar, and because he has the weight to retain his hold upon the throne. His sway is not undisputed. There are ambitious young bulls who resent Pink Eye’s authority, but their insolent and defiant questioning of the monarch’s rule [illegible] opportunity for revision when the king locks with them. No bull in all the 400 is a match for Pink Eye, even though his left horn is but a stub, crumpled by many fierce conflicts. His immense weight and tremendous strength and his sagacity makes him unconquerable. But though he could rule the whole herd he is content to lord it over but 60.”

pc006887
This isn’t Pink Eye (photo is circa 1930) – but it is a photograph of the current “King of the Herd.” PC006887. Photograph courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

“Pink Eye has been called upon to defend his throne against only one serious revolutionary movement of a pretender since the herd entered the park. In this fierce battle he was returned victorious – not unscarred, but with a deeper rumble to his bellow, and a more dangerous gleam in his eye.

It was a fierce battle. The scene of it was on the top of a knoll, which capped a rise overlooking the lake. The bull who essayed to oust Pink Eye from command of the herd was a giant himself, but young and inexperienced, unversed in the plan of battle. The keepers say the fire of the approaching battle had been smouldering for some days. Pink Eye was loathe to engage in it, but when the point was reached where his dignity could suffer no further insult and permit him retaining his prestige, he gave battle.

Like a general he selected a strategical position. He worked his way to the knoll, and there, with head lowered, and bellowing defiance, he withstood the charges of his enemy, until the young bull, worn out by repeated charges up the hill, and meeting head on each time a force which sent him back like a stone from a sling, became utterly exhausted, and, unable to meet the terrific onslaught of Pink Eye, made at the psychological moment, he was carried down the hill and completely vanquished. The keepers saw the battle. They were unwilling to interfere, even had intervention been possible, for until one bull gains supremacy over all others with ambitions, there is trouble in the herd. There has to be a battle, and the sooner it is over the better. To-day Pink Eye is supreme.”

Excerpt from “The Buffalo at Elk Park,” The Edmonton Bulletin (August 29, 1908): page 3.

Buffalo Refuses to be unloaded - Forsyth
This (probably) isn’t an image of old Pink Eye either, but I like to think the rage in his eyes is the same. Photograph of a bull bison from the Pablo-Allard herd being loaded up in Montana on his way to being shipped up to Elk Island, circa 1909. “Buffalo Refuses to be Unloaded,” by N.A. Forsyth. Image from the Montana Historical Society.

Read the Plaque: Off the Beaten Track in Elk Island

Stopping to read commemorative plaques is an excellent way to do public history. They tell us what people in the past thought was important to commemorate. They tell us stories about these places. Often people may walk right past them on busy thoroughfares: just another part of the urban landscape, safely ignored. (Don’t be that guy: consciously stop and read the plaques!)

Other times, plaques are so far off the beaten track you have to wonder what their intended audience was. Such is the case of this plaque at Elk Island National Park.

img_2345

It tells an interesting point of history:  the plaque marks the spot of a cabin staffed by the first fire warden in the area, William Henry Stephens. (No mention that there were in fact two wardens at the time – the other man was a Lakota-Sioux man named “Black Jack” Sanderson.)

The plaque is firmly secured to a glacial erratic – a large boulder. It does mark the site of the cabin, but the site is so far out of the way the plaque can’t be seen by more than a dozen or two people a year, largely park staff. You see, it sits along what’s known as Rob’s Road: a disused warden trail in the little-used Wood Bison Area of the park. It is technically accessible to visitors, but would be a 20km hike or so along an unofficial trail.  I think bison see it more often than people do.

Nevertheless, it is a pleasant surprise to stumble across this little memorial! Do continue five minute’s north along the path. You’ll see the only two maple trees in the entire park, planted alongside a different warden cabin, now gone.

Want to know where to find this plaque? See the map on this entry of ReadThePlaque.com.

Further Resources

 

Elk Island National Park: What’s in a Name?

Beautiful Elk Island National Park! But where did its name come from? Is there an Elk Island on the lake? Or is it all a beautiful metaphor?

sunset-over-astotin-lake-4-september-2016
Is THIS Elk Island? (Photo by the author of Astotin Lake at Elk Island National Park, 4 September 2016.)

When I first arrived at Elk Island in 2014, I went searching for the origins of the park’s name. The “elk” part of the park’s name made intuitive sense, as it is pretty well-established that Elk Island had been founded as a federally controlled elk preserve in 1906.

But where did the “Island” in its name come from?

Islands of Astotin Lake
Yes, there was an island on Astotin Lake called “Elk Island”, but it is now a peninsula. That name came later, though, and it is so called because elk apparently used to swim out there to give birth. So no, that island wasn’t important enough to name the entire park after it. Image courtesy of Parks Canada.

 

Visitor guides from the 1980s seemed to go the metaphor route. Judith Cornish wrote in Finding Birds in Elk Island National Park (1988): “Elk Island – an island of wilderness in a sea of rural development.” Jean Burgess in Walk on the Wild Side: An All Season Trail Guide to Elk Island National Park (1986) also described the park in its introduction as an “‘island’ of wilderness.” I’ve heard ecologists talk about how the Beaver Hills, where the park is found, are like an island of unique geology, rising up above the surrounding landscape. That may well be true, but is it where the park’s name came from?

I had read early newspapers that called the place “Elk Park” before it became a dominion park with the Dominion Parks Act of 1913, at which point it became “Elk Island Dominion Park.” Why the addition of the word “Island” at that time?

So I did what any historian would have done… I looked it up.

I went over to Peel’s Prairie Provinces, an archive of Western Canadiana, and did a quick search of their newspaper archive. I put “Elk Island” in quotation marks to get an exact phrase, and then sorted the newspapers in ascending order of dates to get the oldest entries. And wouldn’t you know it – I found my answer in an article from 1908, a bare two years after the park was founded but five  years before it gained its full name officially with the parks act of 1913:

“Quite apart from the attractions which the park will have for those who love wild animal life, the scenic beauty of the park and its surroundings will make a powerful appeal. It is four miles square and the lake, from which it obtains its name, is situated wholly within its borders, being two miles long by an average width of a mile and a half. It contains twenty-one of the most beautiful islands imaginable…”

  • Elk Island Lake Park: One of the Beauty Spots of Alberta,” Saturday News (January 25, 1908): 1.

I have since read elsewhere that Astotin Lake was also once called “Island Lake,” like in this caption from a photo album circa 1910:

PC003646.2
Island Lake in Elk Park, Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta, circa 1910. Image courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

From 1906 to 1922 (when the park expanded its borders to what is now the Yellowhead highway) the park was a little fenced postage stamp of land around Astotin (Island) Lake with a bunch of elk. People came to admire the park’s two distinctive features:  the elk and the islands. Hence:  Elk Island National Park.

Also, the name “Buffalo National Park” was already taken.

“I have had enough buffalo” : the photographer who was nearly trampled to death

Last Buffalo Chase in America
“Last Buffalo Chase in America,” by N.A. Forsyth. Image from the Montana Historical Society.

As visitors to this blog may note, I never get tired of stories of bison, past and present. I was recently trying to track down some images of the roundup of bison in Montana from the Pablo-Allard herd – the bison that were sold and shipped North to Canada to Elk Island National Park in 1907-1909. The last great roundup of wild bison was quite the media event and newspapers in Montana and Alberta are full of epic death-defying stories.

One of the men on the scene to document this event was N.A. Forsyth, who took a large number of stereoscope images of the “Buffalo Roundup.” A while back, I ran across this story of how he nearly died for his craft in a Wainwright, Alberta newspaper.

“The entry of the buffalo into the corral came nearly being accompanied by a regrettable fatality. Mr. Forsyth, an enterprising photographer from Butte, Mont., being anxious to get some photos of the animals in the water, had stationed himself at a point of vantage amidst a clump of trees close to one of the booms in the river where he judged he would be out of path of the oncoming herd. However they chose to take the bank directly below where he was standing, and before he could reach safety they were upon him in a mad, irresistible stampede. How he escaped being trampled to instant death is a miracle which even he cannot realize. He has a recollection of the herd rushing upon him and of having in some way clutched a passing calf which he clung to until it passed under a tree. He then managed to grasp a branch and although he was unable to pull himself up out of danger he was able to keep himself from under the feet of the plunging herd. His dangling legs were bruised and cut by their horns and his clothes were torn to shreds, but he still clung to the limb for life. Twice the herd passed under him as they circled back in an attempt to escape, but fortunately before he became exhausted they rushed into the corral. The Canadian Pacific officials and the riders who knew the location chosen by Forsyth shuddered when they saw the animals rush in there and expected to find his body trampled out of semblance in the clay. Consequently they were rejoiced to find the luckless photographer slightly disfigured, but still hugging his friend the tree in his dishevelled wardrobe. His two costly cameras were trampled to pieces and his opinion of his predicament was summed up in the words, ‘I have had enough buffalo.’”

Source: Wainwright Star, January 8, 1909, Page 1, Item Ar00104, at Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

Recently, I discovered the digitized collection of this photographer’s images in the collection of the Montana Historical Society… and one image really struck me. I believe that this photograph may well have been taken only moments before the photographer was nearly trampled half to death. Several details stick out.

"After the Swim, Herd of Wild Buffaloes, Mont." by N. A. Forsyth. Courtesy of the Montana Historical Society Archives. http://mtmemory.org/cdm/singleitem/collection/p267301coll3/id/2468/rec/12
“After the Swim, Herd of Wild Buffaloes, Mont.” by N. A. Forsyth. Image from the Montana Historical Society.

Firstly, the description of the scene: bison swimming across a river, near some trees, but the photographer was out of the perceived path of the herd. He was near some trees, which he clung to as the bison went by not once but twice.

Secondly, the reference to “two costly cameras.” Why would he need two cameras? To take stereoscopic images like this one. You need two lenses to create two near-identical photographs simultaneously – hence, two cameras. Though if they were smashed, would that necessarily ruin the film…?

Anyway, perhaps I am wrong. Maybe this photograph wasn’t taken right before this photographer was nearly stampeded by bison. I can tell you for certain that this photograph was taken by the same photographer of the same herd of Michel Pablo’s bison, and based on his photographs he didn’t always stay a safe distance away from these wild animals.

Here is a selection of more photographs Forsyth took of the roundup. These are all stereoscopes. With a special reader, these photographs would have appeared 3D, so you too could experience the Great Buffalo Roundup from the comfort of your own home! All of these images are from the Montana Historical Society. Please click on the images to follow the link to the archive’s page to zoom in on high definition digital scans of these stereoscopes.

A buffalo calf six months old

“A Buffalo Calf Six Months Old,” by N.A. Forsyth. Image from the Montana Historical Society.

A Fine Pair in the World's Finest Buffalo Herd

“A Fine Pair in the World’s Finest Buffalo Herd,” by N.A. Forsyth. Image from the Montana Historical Society.

Bringing in a Bunch to Load

“Bringing in a Bunch to Load,” by N.A. Forsyth. Image from the Montana Historical Society.

Buffalo escaping from the wagon

“Buffalo Escaping from Wagon,” by N.A. Forsyth. Image from the Montana Historical Society.

Forsyth A Very Mad Little Buffalo

“A Very Mad Little Buffalo,” by N.A. Forsyth. Image from the Montana Historical Society.

Buffalo Refuses to be unloaded - Forsyth

“Buffalo Refuses to Be Unloaded,” by N.A. Forsyth. Image from the Montana Historical Society.

Forsyth - a buffalo is good on the turn

“A Buffalo is Good on the Turn,” by N.A. Forsyth. Image from the Montana Historical Society.

Forsyth - Bufaloes roll like a horse

“Buffaloes Roll Like a Horse,” by N.A. Forsyth. Image from the Montana Historical Society.

Subdued Prisoners Waiting for their Exile - Forsyth

“Subdued Prisoners Waiting for Their Exile,” by N.A. Forsyth. Image from the Montana Historical Society.

The Great-Grandmother of the Herd - Forsyth

“The Great-Grandmother of the Herd,” by N.A. Forsyth. Image from the Montana Historical Society.

Forsyth - Making a last and fierce struggle for freedom

“Making a Last and Fierce Struggle for Freedom,” by N.A. Forsyth. Image from the Montana Historical Society. Note that this escapee is in fact a female bison. Newspapers said that Pablo had to specially reinforce cattle cars because bison would burst right through the sides of normal cow cars.

All Bison, All the Time: Related Blog Posts on Bison 

Elk Island National Park: Founded on a Bet?

It’s no secret that I’ve been doing a lot of research into Elk Island National Park’s history recently for work. One of the things that I could never quite wrap my head around is the motivations for the foundation of the park in 1906. Elk Island is one of the oldest national parks in Canada – it in fact predates the foundation of the more famous Jasper National Park by a year – and is the only remaining example of an “Animal Park,” founded as it was to protect one animal species (elk). Other national parks, like Banff, were considered “Scenic Parks,” founded to protect their beautiful scenery from logging and settlement and to encourage tourism. (The other two “animal parks” in Canada, incidentally, were Buffalo National Park (1909-1939) and Nemiskam National Antelope Park (1915-1947).) Elk Island has over a century of conservation history under its metaphorical belt, starting with the preservation of a small band of elk enclosed by a fence. But what motivated the creation of the only entirely fenced national park in Canada?

Elk in Buffalo Park, Wainwright, Bell Photo, circa 1910. Courtesy of Peel's Prairie Provinces, http://peel.library.ualberta.ca/postcards/PC005162.html
Elk in Buffalo Park, Wainwright, Bell Photo, circa 1910. Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

The basic outline of the story that I was always told by other park employees and in short trail guides from the 1980s was that Elk Island was founded by “five guys who put up a $5,000 bond.” I’m going to be honest with you: I had no idea what that meant. When pressed, colleagues explained to me vaguely that five conservation-minded men from Fort Saskatchewan asked the government to create a national park and pooled their resources to show that they were serious in their commitment, and that the government matched that $5,000. Not knowing much about Edwardian bonds or the financial situation of the Canadian government in 1906, and not knowing what the money was even for, I wasn’t sure if this made sense. I was really left with more questions than answers.

Doing a little digging, it turns out that those five men from Fort Saskatchewan were all members of a hunting club. I knew that middle- and upper-class hunters from settler communities were often involved in early conservation efforts in the Victorian and Edwardian eras, largely because they wanted large game to be managed for their own benefit and protected from the being killed by local people (largely Aboriginal and/or poor) for subsistence. The early history of national parks in North America as a whole is riddled with stories like this: more privileged “visionaries” reserving tracts of land from those who lived on and used that land already. This interpretation fits with descriptions of the Fort Saskatchewan men being concerned that unnamed people would shoot the last remaining elk in the region.

I still didn’t quite understand what the $5,000 bond was, though. I then ran across this newspaper clipping on the foundation of the park in the May 6th, 1906 edition of the Edmonton Bulletin (click to enlarge). The relevant paragraph is the following:

“Alberta Game Laws Changed: The Proposed Elk Park – No More Spring Shooting,” Edmonton Bulletin (May 3, 1906), 1. Courtesy of Peel's Prairie Provinces.
“Alberta Game Laws Changed: The Proposed Elk Park – No More Spring Shooting,” Edmonton Bulletin (May 3, 1906), 1. Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

“It is known to all who are familiar with such matters in Alberta that practically the last of the elk . . . are contained in a band variously estimated from forty to one hundred which is at present making its stamping grounds in the Beaver Hills, to the east of Edmonton. As Mr. Walker explained, some of the residents of his constituency, being very desirous of preserving the band, approached the Minister of [the] Interior on the occasion of his recent visit to this city and asked that he lay the matter before the Government at Ottawa and induce them to build a fence around at tract of timber in that part of the country . . . known to be the haunt of the elk. The Minister of [the] Interior replied that the Government would not be very likely to undertake anything of the kind unless they had some guarantee that there would be a fair possibility to get the elk inside the fence after it had been built, whereupon the Fort Saskatchewan men offered to put up a cash bond of $5,000 as a guarantee that within ten days after the fence was built they would have at least twenty elk within this enclosure. The guarantee was considered an evidence of faith in the scheme that could not well be overlooked, and the minister promised to do what he could to have the land set aside for the purpose of a deer park fenced.”

And thus Elk Park was born.

Three sides of the fenced enclosure were built around Astotin Lake by volunteers, leaving the southern boundary open. Elk were driven into this area, and the fourth fence constructed soon after, enclosing a grand total of about 24 elk in June 1907. After that point the five men were “released” from their bond as they had fulfilled their obligations.

Now, I interpret this incident almost as if it were a formalized “bet”: the Minister of the Interior, Frank Oliver, didn’t believe that it was feasible to enclose this band of elk. The residents of Fort Saskatchewan disagreed. $5,000 was put forward by five men as a guarantee that they was serious about protecting these elk, and Oliver would set aside land for them to try to enclose the animals. If the five men were right, Oliver would make the fenced enclosure officially a national park (or protected game reserve). The residents, in the end, succeeded, and Elk Park was quietly managed as if it were a national park until it was officially designated one under the Dominion Parks Act in 1913. That does of course make me wonder, though: what if they’d failed to enclose the elk? Would “Elk Park” have been quietly re-absorbed into the Cooking Lake Forest Reserve from which it was carved out?

Regardless, the narrative of “far sighted, visionary conservationists” founding the park in 1906 never sat well with me. It always seemed like an idealization of the past or a romanticize of its founders. It’s a truism that people do things for selfish reasons. More research into this specific situation bore this assumption of mine out. It appears that one of the five men, a Mr. Lees, was awarded two contracts totalling $13,800 in 1906 to construct that fence. (Fence posts and wire are expensive.) He more than made up his temporary investment of a portion of that $5,000 bond.

But see, the thing is: just because national parks were founded for quote-unquote “selfish” reasons does not negate the century-long conservation legacy that came afterwards. Origins are not destiny. I think that telling a more nuanced, “warts and all” story is far more fascinating and provides a deeper understanding than a glossy soundbite about historical “visionaries”. Whatever their intentions – be it personal profit, a desire to reserve those elk for their own hunts, or an actual desire to see elk protected from harm at the hands of human beings – those five men did secure the protection of the last remaining significant elk herd in the Edmonton area, and the park that they helped to found went on to play a huge role in preserving plains and wood bison from extinction in the future. And that’s worth celebrating.

Resources

  • “Alberta Game Laws Changed: The Proposed Elk Park – No More Spring Shooting,” Edmonton Bulletin (May 3, 1906), 1.
  • Colpitts, George. Game in the Garden: A Human History of Wildlife in Western Canada to 1940. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2002.
  • Hart, E.J. J.B Harkin: Father of Canada’s National Parks. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2010.
  • Scace, Robert. Elk Island National Park: A Cultural History. Unpublished report prepared for Parks Canada Department of Indian & Northern Affairs. Calgary: Scace & Associates Ltd., 1976.

The Great Roundups: Getting Michel Pablo’s Bison Herd To Canada, 1907-1912

By 1890, the once great wild North American bison herds, which had at one point numbered in the tens of millions, were all but extinguished. Within a single human lifetime of slaughter,  less than a thousand individuals were left, scattered across North America in small pockets. A few wild bison remained in areas which became national parks: plains bison in Yellowstone (1872) and wood bison in Wood Buffalo (1922). Most of the remaining stragglers elsewhere were soon after hunted down or captured by ranchers.

Granny and her calf, Wainwright Buffalo Park. [Wainwright: Photo Carsell, Wainwright, Alberta, 1931].peel.library.ualberta.ca/postcards/PC005137.html
“Granny and her calf, Wainwright Buffalo Park.” Wainwright: Photo Carsell, 1931. PC005137. Image Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.
In the 1870s, during one of the last great buffalo hunts in Montana, a First Nations man named Samuel Walking Coyote captured and raised about four orphaned calves after they followed his horse home. After his herd had grown to about thirteen head, he sold them to two Métis men: Charles Allard and Michel Pablo. Pablo and Allard raised these animals over the next few decades, bolstering their stock with animals from other sources such as Charles “Buffalo” Jones. But by the turn of the century, Pablo (Allard had since died) lost the right to graze his bison on the Flathead reservation land where they’d been flourishing because the American government decided to open up native reserve land in the area for white settlement.

Pablo offered to sell his bison – a symbol of the American West – to Teddy Roosevelt’s government, but they vacillated and couldn’t commit. Some say Pablo felt personally insulted and when the Canadian government agreed to buy his bison he went out of his way to ensure that every last animal possible would be sent north above the Medicine Line (the 49th parallel) to Canada.

The roundup was to be no easy task.

You try moving over 700 of these guys somewhere they don't want to go. Image of bison at Buffalo National Park at Wainwright (descendants of the Pablo-Allard herd) in 1931. PC005106, courtesy of Peel's Prairie Provinces.
You try moving over 700 of these guys somewhere they don’t want to go.
Image of bison at Buffalo National Park at Wainwright (descendants of the Pablo-Allard herd) in 1931. PC005106, courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

Pablo had underestimated the number of bison that he actually grazed: instead of perhaps 300, he had over 700. The bison were temporarily housed at Elk Island National Park from 1907-1909, because the fences at the newly-created (and ill-fated) Buffalo National Park, were not completed until 1909. But those are stories for another time. Rounding up all of Pablo’s bison took far more than the one summer they had planned, but due to the tenacity of the cowboys on horseback working over the course of nearly five years over rugged terrain with the largest and wildest of remaining bison herds, and the significant financial investment Pablo made in wooden corrals and specialized, reinforced train cars, Pablo succeeded in his goal.

These roundups were by no means safe. Like their descendants, these bison were wild and objected to being moved about. The Wainwright Star recounts the dramatic story of a photographer who was nearly trampled to death during one of the roundups in Montana:

“The entry of the buffalo into the corral came nearly being accompanied by a regrettable fatality. Mr. Forsyth, an enterprising photographer from Butte, Mont., being anxious to get some photos of the animals in the water, had stationed himself at a point of vantage amidst a clump of trees close to one of the booms in the river where he judged he would be out of path of the oncoming herd. However they chose to take the bank directly below where he was standing, and before he could reach safety they were upon him in a mad, irresistible stampede. How he escaped being trampled to instant death is a miracle which even he cannot realize. He has a recollection of the herd rushing upon him and of having in some way clutched a passing calf which he clung to until it passed under a tree. He then managed to grasp a branch and although he was unable to pull himself up out of danger he was able to keep himself from under the feet of the plunging herd. His dangling legs were bruised and cut by their horns and his clothes were torn to shreds, but he still clung to the limb for life. Twice the herd passed under him as they circled back in an attempt to escape, but fortunately before he became exhausted they rushed into the corral. The Canadian Pacific officials and the riders who knew the location chosen by Forsythe shuddered when they saw the animals rush in there and expected to find his body trampled out of semblance in the clay. Consequently they were rejoiced to find the luckless photographer slightly disfigured, but still hugging his friend the tree in his dishevelled wardrobe. His two costly cameras were trampled to pieces and his opinion of his predicament was summed up in the words, ‘I have had enough buffalo.’” (emphasis added)
Source: Wainwright Star, January 8, 1909, Page 1, Item Ar00104, at Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

Bison are still rounded-up today. For the past century, Elk Island National Park has actively handled bison for disease control, population reduction (earlier through culling and now through transfers), and sample taking for academic study. It is no easy task. Last week, I had the amazing opportunity to help with the roundup of wood bison: the largest land mammals in North America. After over a century of work, the conservation of plains and wood bison continues today.

Further Resources

Bison, Past and Present

Buffalo in Wainwright's Park. [Wainwright]: Bell Photo, [1910]. PC005127, courtesy of Peel's Prairie Provinces.
Buffalo in Wainwright’s Park. [Wainwright]: Bell Photo, [1910]. PC005127, courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.
Working as an interpreter at Elk Island National Park this summer (obligatory disclaimer: I am in no way an official spokesperson for EINP, merely a passionate employee who wants to talk a lot about historical bison), I have been conducting a tremendous amount of research into the history of bison extirpation and conservation. As a historian keenly interested in the history of Western Canada, I have been reading and rereading some of the same sources I’ve known about for a while – the journals of explorers and fur traders, postcards of the first conservation herds, etc. – but I am looking at them with a new eye. Why? Because I interact with these iconic animals every day.

When I read some of these historical sources, I find myself nodding along.  Suddenly, certain passages make much more sense than they did only months ago as I read them in my grad student office in Ottawa. Jack Brink, in his work Imagining Head-Smashed-In (PDF on publisher’s website linked below), wrote of one unfortunate explorer’s experience with the massive bison herds in the West:

“In 1820, Edwin James provided the most harrowing account when, struck by a torrential thunderstorm on the Plains, the river rose and ‘was soon covered with such a quantity of bison’s dung, suddenly washed in from the declivities of the mountains and the plains at its base, that the water could scarcely be seen.’ Dinner that night, made with brown river water, tasted like a ‘cow-yard’ and was thrown away.”

When you have on more than one occasion found yourself tripping over a dry pattie on a hike or toeing apart the layers of the spiralled winter dung of a bison before the horrified gazes of city raised fifth graders, you come to realize that bison poop is a fact of life in the park. If a mere 900 or so individual animals can produce enough dung for me to encounter dozens of examples every day, what must it have been like for those people on the prairies at a time when an estimated 60 million bison roamed the continent?

“I am conscious that with many, I run the risk of being thought to indulge in romance, in consequence of this account: but with those who are informed of the astonishing number of the buffaloe, it will not be considered incredible. . . On the hills in every direction they appeared by thousands. Late in the evening we saw an immense herd in motion along the sides of the hill, at full speed: their appearance had something in it, which, without incurring ridicule, I might call sublime – the sound of their footsteps, even at the distance of two miles, resembled the rumbling of distant thunder.”

    – H.M. Brackenridge, 1811, travelling up the Missouri river, cited by Brink in Imagining Head-Smashed-In

What ecological effect did removing 60 million megafauna from the ecosystem have? Prairie fires were one unexpected result. I read that from about 1880, when bison numbers had dropped to an inconsequential and shocking few thousand head, to about 1920, when most of the land in the west was under cultivation, terrible and destructive prairie fires swept through the western prairies. Why? Because bison were no longer keeping those prairie grasses trimmed and so they were growing as high as a person’s waist or more. A single spark in those long grasses could cause devastating fire that would spread quickly. (Having had to mow the lawn in front of my staff residence in the park on many an occasion I can definitely tell you that grass can easily grow higher than my head at great speed if not kept trimmed.)

Bison also maintained the grassland by keeping aspen trees from establishing themselves by trampling seedlings. Many forested areas – including Elk Island National Park – were once grassland, over a century ago when the bison roamed the area. You can’t understand the current ecology of the region without an understanding of the impact of the bison and of their removal.

When it comes to other primary sources, I reexamine them with incredulity and ask myself whether they ever actually saw a real bison. Here, for example, is a painting by George Catlin of a “Buffalo Hunt,” cited by Jack Brink in his book Imagining Head-Smashed-In. What’s so strange about it? I can now easily see that this is a sizable bison bull.  Bison cows were hunted 10:1 to bulls because bull meat has less fat, is tougher, and tastes rank. But bulls sure do look impressive for painters, right?

"Buffalo Hunt." George Catlin's North American Indian Portfolio (London: J.E. Adlard, 1844), Plate No. 5. Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN No. 2833501.
“Buffalo Hunt.” George Catlin’s North American Indian Portfolio (London: J.E. Adlard, 1844), Plate No. 5. Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN No. 2833501.

To conclude: bison may have played a huge part in the past in the North American West, and while their numbers have been mindbogglingly reduced, they certainly aren’t yet history. Elk Island has played a huge role in bison conservation over the last century, and while I am occasionally late for work because bison tend to cross the road at their convenience and not mine, I marvel at the fact that I get to have these encounters nearly every day. At least I can observe the bison and reflect on their historical and current presence from the safety of my metal vehicle.

Further Reading