Published on September 17, 2013
Sturgeon River Plains Bison are seen wading through water.
Sturgeon River Plains Bison Stewards photo
Published on September 17, 2013
University of Rottenburg, Germany, bachelor thesis student Volker Schmid is seen at the Saskatchewan Forestry Centre on Tuesday, near the end of a summer at the Prince Albert National Park monitoring the movements of Sturgeon River Plains Bison.
Herald photo by Tyler Clarke
The envy of bison stewards throughout North America, the Sturgeon River plains bison population previously on the decline appears to be stabilizing.
Sturgeon River Plains Bison Stewards executive director Gord Vaadeland spoke with the Daily Herald by phone on Tuesday from the American Bison Society Conference and Workshop in Big Sky, Montana.
“People down here are pretty envious of what we have and what we’ve accomplished,” he said after giving a presentation on his group’s namesake herd.
The bison are spread throughout the Prince Albert National Park’s southwestern corner, as well as some crown and private land in the area.
“That’s the only completely wild free-ranging herd of bison in Canada, so that’s a really important herd.”
The herd’s origins date back to 1969, when 36 female and 14 male bison from the Elk Island National Park of Alberta were released near Meyakumew Lake, north of the Prince Albert National Park.
Aside from the approximately 10 bison that moved south to the Sturgeon River Valley, the balance were shot or rounded up and trucked to alternate locations.
The initial herd of 10 bison thrived over the years, peaking at about 500 animals between 2006 and 2008.
Then, an anthrax outbreak in 2008 reduced numbers significantly -- a factor compounded by increased wolf predation and First Nations harvesting, bringing the population down to between approximately 200 and 250, as of this year.
Although hunting isn’t allowed in the Prince Albert National Park, First Nations are allowed to hunt them outside the park -- an area that University of Rottenburg, Germany, bachelor’s thesis student Volker Schmid monitored this summer.
While a peer joined Vaadeland at the Montana convention, Schmid stayed in Saskatchewan this week where he provided an update on his work at a Prince Albert Model Forest board meeting.
“The job begins when the bison leave the national park and go to private pasture and trample fences,” he said during the meeting.
So far this year, traditional First Nations hunters have killed approximately seven bison -- hunters Schmid has been handing pamphlets to in order to let them know the latest population counts.
“We’ve taken some steps to work with the First Nations communities and their hunters to better-educate them on what they numbers are,” Vaadeland said. “They were operating under the impression there were 500 bison as opposed to the 250, so once better education got out to them they hunted less.”
That’s the only completely wild free-ranging herd of bison in Canada, so that’s a really important herd. Sturgeon River Plains Bison Stewards executive director Gord Vaadeland
Key to the bison’s success as a herd has been the support of ranchers who own land just outside the national park’s southwestern edge, where bison are known to trample crops and destroy fences.
“Any conflict with landowners is reduced or mitigated, or at least their concerns are heard and something is done about it,” Vaadeland said.
“We’d like (bison) to spend their time in the park, but not so much so that we’ll build a fence, because we want to keep them free-ranging – and, there are other species to consider.”
Vaadeland notes that in most areas of North America, bison preservation is an ongoing battle between NGOs and bison stewards with ranchers.
Most ranchers affected by Sturgeon River plains bison are on bison’s side.
“We’ve somehow, in little old P.A., managed to find a balance between having to address the concerns, but at the same time we all want bison and are happy to have that herd there,” he said.
Vaadeland, himself, is a rancher who owns land that bison are known to spend time on -- a sometimes-frustrating predicament given bison’s tendency to cause damage.
“People only have a rope that’s so long,” he said.
“Ultimately, it’s tolerance that will allow them to remain on the landscape. There’s more than enough habitat for them, that’s not the issue. It’s, can we live together?”
In the midst of a population lag, Vaadeland said that he’s confident things are beginning to improve.
“If we haven’t completely (stopped the population decrease), we’re close and we’ll start seeing growth in the herd, but we still have lots of work to do.”
For more on the Sturgeon River Plains Bison, visit the stewardship group’s website, www.bisonstewards.ca.
Schmid will remain in Saskatchewan until early October, at which time he hopes to have better-cemented numbers regarding the Sturgeon River Plains Bison.
So far this summer, he reports that the biggest single group of bison he’s counted at a single time was made up of 147 animals.