Millions of plains bison used to roam at will on the Prairies, but they were brought to near extinction in the late 1800s. The Canadian government purchased one of the last remaining herds, and some of the animals founded the herd at Elk Island National Park, Alberta.
In 1969, 50 plains bison from Elk Island were released north of Prince Albert National Park. They moved southwards and, while most were relocated, some remained within the Park becoming the only free-ranging herd within the historic plains bison territory.
By 2008, there were 400 animals (the herd is currently half that size), and they began to move out of the park and onto the neighbouring farm land causing damage to fences and crops. A group of representative landowners sat down with Parks Canada and Ministry of Environment representatives to develop a strategy so that bison and local residents could co-exist.
Rather than simply responding to government plans, the landowners saw an opportunity to organize themselves and lead the stewardship initiative. “We didn’t think of ourselves as environmentalists,” explains Gord Vaadeland, Executive Director for the Sturgeon River Plains Bison Stewards. “We just saw something that needed doing.”
Vaadeland explains that the Stewards’ primary purpose is to build tolerance. “The bison have a mind of their own,” he says. “We can monitor their movements and try to steer them, but they’ll go where they want to go.”
The Nature Conservancy of Canada has been of assistance by purchasing parcels of land and creating easements so that the animals can move more freely.
From a high point of 400 animals, the herd has dropped to 200, and the Stewards are concerned about maintaining a large enough herd to protect its genetic diversity.
Diseases, such as anthrax, tuberculosis and brucellosis, can be a significant problem. The bison aren’t handled, so they can’t be vaccinated. Instead, the Stewards work with ranchers to vaccinate the cattle and to maintain a really high level of cattle health so that they don’t spread disease. When there was an anthrax breakout, the Stewards disposed of all the carcasses that they could find, both burning and burying them.
Local landowners are actively discouraged from owning sheep as sheep carry a disease that’s fatal to bison. The Stewards also try to ensure that no domestic bison are loose in order to protect the wild herd from genetic contamination.
The local First Nations harvest bison annually, often for their Elders. Unfortunately, they are under the impression that there are 400-500 animals, but this isn’t the case. The Stewards are talking to individual hunters and are setting up meetings with the band councils in order to provide them with accurate information. “We want to give the First Nations the correct information,” Vaadeland explains. “Once they know how few bison remain, they quit hunting.” The Stewards are also talking to landowners as First Nations aren’t allowed to hunt without permission.
The Stewards hope to establish a landowner/First Nations caucus that will meet once or twice a year to develop an unofficial plan. “At the moment we never meet face to face,” Vaadeland explains. “It’s good to create opportunities for dialogue.”
Additional Stewardship Opportunities
The Sturgeon River Plains Bison Stewards recognize that they have a very workable model that can be applied to other land stewardship situations. It’s all about getting organized and getting involved, Gord Vaadeland says. “Don’t complain about not having a voice,” Vaadeland says. “Government will be delighted if you present them with a plan.”
Vaadeland is sharing his knowledge as a Farm Stewardship Advisor with the Provincial Council of Agriculture Development. The provincial government provides funding to individual farmers and groups wanting to establish beneficial land management practices (establishing buffer zones to protect stream banks, improved water management systems, etc.).
Vaadeland encourages farmers to set up a group plan. He finds a few local champions, shows them what they can do, and helps them with the paper work. The plan can be tailored to meet local needs and a local person is hired to operate the group.
Gord Vaadeland is a rancher himself so farmers believe him when he tells them that land stewardship will benefit them as well as the environment. “The government will pay 50% of the costs of fencing off the river and establishing off-site watering,” Vaadeland says. “The cattle now have clean water, will grow better, and will yield a higher profit.”
In addition, the knowledge remains permanently in the community leading to long-term change. “The Plains Bison Stewardship program has transformed the community of Big River,” Vaadeland says. “It’s very subtle, but we’re more aware. It’s opened our minds to new ideas.
Vaadeland also encourages the farmers to work towards self sustainability so that they can generate their own funding and be completely self directed. “You can’t be reliant on one government program,” he says, “as programs change.”
International Land Stewardship
In 2008, Gord Vaadeland attended the World Landscape Sustainability Forum, sponsored by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. “I met some coffee farmers from India. They resolved their problems with elephants in exactly the same way as we did with the bison. Their ways of getting organized and working together were almost exactly the same as ours,” Vaadeland says.
The Sturgeon River Plains Bison Stewards realized that their model could be applied internationally. With the support of the Prince Albert Model Forest, Gord Vaadeland is working with reindeer herders in Sweden and ranchers in Chile.
“Chile has a huge issue with overgrazing in the forest,” Vaadeland explains. “We’re hoping to set up a grazing management model using my ranch as an example. We can hopefully then take this to Chile and show the local ranchers how they can take charge and set up a plan that will increase their profitability (e.g. through revenue from non-timber forest products).”
In Sweden, the Sami reindeer herders have found their traditional migratory routes blocked by new development and are having to transport their reindeer by truck between their summer and winter locations. “It would be great if we could give the Sami a voice in the development process as more stakeholders move into the area,” Vaadeland says.
Banff Bison Project
Parks Canada hopes to introduce plains bison into Banff National Park. Unlike Saskatchewan, Parks Canada doesn’t always have good relationships with the neighbouring landowners in Alberta. Gord Vaadeland is working with Parks Canada and the local ranchers and farmers to establish a board of directors and agreements with the Park and other parties based on the Sturgeon River Plains Bison Stewardship model. “It’s starting out as a knock off of our plan, but it will develop unique aspects to fits is circumstances,” Vaadeland says.
Gord Vaadeland is a rancher, and he proudly wears his cowboy hat on all occasions. But he is also a conservationist. In fact, he says that conservation and his ranch have become so intertwined that he couldn’t imagine without the other. “Ranchers and First Nations are critical stakeholders,” Vaadeland says. “We must be engaged in conversations about protecting the land.”
Sturgeon River Ranch
Sturgeon River Plains Bison Stewards website
Sturgeon River Plains Bison Stewards Facebook page
Gord Vaadeland’s CPAWS-SK blog