We Are Living in A Post-Bison Landscape

The more I delve into the history of bison over the last 200 years, the more I realize how the slaughter of these animals still has very real impacts on life in North American today. Historians and biologists writing over the last century have grown up in a world where bison are largely segregated into natural areas far away from urban centres and/or behind fences. As such, bison and their absence are not always top of mind. Out of sight, out of mind, after all. However, the near-extinction of this iconic animal has had huge ecological and social impacts on the west throughout the last 150 years and more. Now whenever I read something new about western Canadian histories or landscapes, I can’t help but re-examine these stories with a “bison lens.”

A bison skull lies on the snowy ground.
Skull of a bison bull in the Hay Meadows at Elk Island National Park, photographed by Lauren Markewicz, December 2017.

Even today, people are so divorced from bison that they may not even realize the origin of various local place names. For example, there’s a place just east of Edmonton called Hairy Hill, so called because bison used to scratch themselves there and leave behind their winter fur in the spring. Chip Lake to the west of Edmonton, I am told, is a warning on a map: don’t water your horses here, as bison have fouled it with their chips (dung). The same may be true of the myriad of “Buffalo Lakes” across the North American west. These names aren’t just whimsical – they have very real meaning.

The thing that got me thinking about the impact of the loss of bison upon events in the west in the first place was wolves. The only two real natural predators of bison are wolves and humans. We’re both pack animals that can work in groups to take on bison herds. Wolves that primarily eat bison are absolutely massive. (See this preview of a documentary on the buffalo wolves of Wood Buffalo National Park, the only place in the world where these two species have experienced an uninterrupted predator-prey relationship. In that clip, a single adult wolf stops a huge yearling bison in its tracks.) One sentence from Grant Wilson’s Frontier Farewell  (page 262) caught my attention last year:

“The great herds were continually harassed by wolves that attacked the calves, the weak, and the aged. As many as 1.5 million wolves prowled the plains…” (Emphasis mine.)

The thing is, the bison populations declined very steeply. Within a single human lifetime, tens of millions of bison were slaughtered. During the height of the killing, often most of the bison carcasses went to waste: hide hiders would skin the dead animal and leave the meat to rot and be torn apart by scavengers. That means that when bison populations were in sharp decline, the wolf population, oddly, initially shot up. So when you read historical accounts of early settlers in the west being terrified by massive wolves, it isn’t just an inbuilt European prejudice against these noble creatures, borne of too many “Little Red Riding Hood” type fairy tales… there were definitely huge, starving packs of wolves roaming the prairies in the decade after the decline of the bison. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series has a chapter in which the family encounters a pack of 50 massive wolves: an event more fact than fiction, or at least within the realm of possibility.

I was trying to think of a third really salient example of the effects of a lack of bison on the landscape, and I came up with too many. Here’s a non-exhaustive list to contemplate:

  • Grass fires: Fire was an actor upon the landscape in the past, but the decline of bison meant that grass grew much taller and fire was suppressed by settlers. As a result, particularly in the 1880s – 1920s period in western Canada, when fire did occur, there were larger conflagrations than there would have been a generation before. (Source: page 19 of Beaver Hills Country.) We still have massive wildfires today, growing in intensity due to fire suppression and climate change. I do wonder if bison on some of these landscapes would mitigate the strength of some of these fires? What else do humans now have to manage intensely that was managed naturally by bison and other natural forces in the past?
  • Insects and endangered insect eaters:  bison poop is an excellent incubator for many species of insects. No other native animal out west produces patties like that. There are probably many species of insects that went extinct prior to them being documented by western scientists, who didn’t come out in force until after their decline. Bison poop incubates insects, which are then eaten by other creatures. (Source: an amazing talk by bison expert Wes Olson.) Now think of all of the insectivorous prairie birds that are on the endangered species list. Their populations are declining due to lack of habitat, but are there also fewer insects than there were when there were 30 million bison roaming the continent?
  • Health of Indigenous Peoples: there are many First Nations who once depended upon the buffalo for food. There was starvation and hunger across the west after the slaughter. Today, diabetes is an epidemic in some Indigenous communities, due to a high-sugar diet and barriers to eating well, including high cost of food in remote communities, poverty, and lack of grocery stores or fresh produce in general. The lack of fresh bison meat in the diet isn’t the only reason for these health problems, but it certainly contributes. The Buffalo Treaty specifically cites “Health” as one of the reasons why signatories are working towards restoring bison to traditional territories today.

As you go about your research (historical or otherwise), as you drive across the prairie and look out on the landscape, and as you wander the streets of the big cities in the west, take the time to think about how the slaughter of bison has resulted in the world you live in today. The presence and absence of bison is still felt.

Further Reading

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!

Postcards That Intrigue Me, Part II: Bison/Cow Hybrids and “Domesticated Buffalo”

When discussing the history of the North American West, the disappearance of the vast “buffalo” (bison) herds must inevitably make an appearance. Over hunting (largely by Europeans and arguably the Métis in Canada during the late fur trade period), competition with domestic cattle in the United States, fencing in previously open prairies, droughts, and the barriers created by railway tracks all contributed to the decline of herds that once contained millions of animals. Photographs of small mountains of bison skulls are a dramatic and tragic depiction of European excess and appear frequently in museums and basic histories of the West.

However, as early as the first decades of the twentieth century, some individuals were seriously trying to tackle new questions of animal conservation. At the now-defunct Buffalo National Park (1909-1939), near Wainwright, Alberta, a new “breed” of animal was created: the “cattalo” (cattle + buffalo), created by breeding together domesticated cattle with bison. These animals were bred back with full-blooded bison to remove their cattle-like physical characteristics, which are still evident in the photographs below of animals that are 5/8 bison. These photographs largely date from the 1910s and 1920s and most were taken in Wainwright.

Edit: I have since also been informed that at Buffalo National Park also conducted hybridization experiments with yaks (“yakkalo“?), under the belief that yaks were a transition species between buffalo and domesticated cattle – that given the right conditions, bison would become yak-like and then cow-like.

PC005148
‘”Quintoporto 5/8 Buffalo Bull, Wainright Park.” PC005148. Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.
PC010948. http://peel.library.ualberta.ca/postcards/PC010948.html Courtesy of Peel's Prairie Provinces.
“5/8   Buffalo Bull.” PC010948.
Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.
PC005145. Courtesy of Peel's Prairie Provinces.
“Pretty Maid 5/8 Buffalo Mother of Cattalo in Wainright Park.” PC005145. Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.
PC005144
“Hybrid Buffalo Cow, Wainright Park, Alta.” PC005144. Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.
PC005146
“Fort Royal Cattalo Bull, Buffalo Park, Wainright.” PC005146. Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.
Herd of Cattalo at Wainright, AB, circa 1910: http://peel.library.ualberta.ca/postcards/PC005142.html
Herd of Cattalo at Wainright, AB, circa 1910. Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

And speaking of “domesticated” bison, I would be remiss in not including this fascinating postcard, for which I have unfortunately little context: “The only chariot buffalo team in the world, owned by Bob Yokum and Edd Carr.” Only in Calgary, eh?

The Only Chariot Buffalo Team in the world owned by Bob Yokum and Edd Carr. [Calgary: cca. 1912. peel.library.ualberta.ca/postcards/PC006004.html
PC006004. “The Only Chariot Buffalo Team in the world, owned by Bob Yokum and Edd Carr.” Calgary: cca. 1912. Courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces.
Side note about terminology: though they are colloquially known as “buffalo” and referred to almost exclusively by that name in the nineteenth-century historical record, “bison” is the preferred term in my generation. “Buffalo” was a misnomer imposed on the animal by European explorers who believed they resembled buffalo from Africa. “Bison” is considered the correct term by many, though some, particularly some Métis groups, still argue that the term “bison” is prescriptivist and “buffalo” still enjoys popular usage and cultural recognition. (“Li buffalo” is still how one says “bison” in Michif, the most widely-spoken Métis language.)

Further Reading:

Western Canadian Dictionary and Phrase-Book: Things a Newcomer Wants to Know (1912)

Western Canadian Phrase Book (1912) Pg005

The University of Alberta’s Peel’s Prairie Provinces online database of Western Canadiana has many a fascinating item. (Incidentally, all available publicly for free without any subscription! Browse and cite to your heart’s content!) One among many is a fascinating dictionary for recent immigrants to Western Canada: Western Canadian Dictionary and Phrase-Book: Things a Newcomer Wants to Know (1912). At a bare 32 pages long, it still contains many phrases that are both familiar (“Skyscraper, a very lofty building“)  and unfamiliar (“Skyscraper man, the name given to the workman, who performs the perilous work of erecting the steel framework of the skyscraper“) to modern readers and really demonstrate just how much the English language was in flux – and apt to confuse particularly British immigrants, the most appealing immigrants as viewed by the Canadian government of the era. Many words and phrases have been absorbed into modern English but were clearly unfamiliar terms to those who had never experienced, say, a Canadian winter (“Sweater, a woolen jacket, much work in Canada during the winter both indoors and outdoors, and sometimes a somewhat gaudy article of wear.”) This dictionary even sheds light on terms so basic I think nothing of saying them fifty times a day: “Sure, a common expression, meaning ‘of course’ or ‘certainly,’ and used much the same as it is used in Ireland, though Canadians will resent the suggestion that the expression if of Irish origin. Sure thing means ‘that’s a certainty‘.” A fascinating resource on Western Canadian English!

Western Canadian Phrase Book (1912)  Pg007
Western Canadian Phrase Book (1912)  Pg030