“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!

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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.

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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:

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“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.”

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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:

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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.

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