One thing that very much impressed me when I was working as a journalist was the fragile, indeed, minimal, knowledge that the human race had compiled about the workings of nature. I found this ignorance to be in really startling contrast to the depths of our detailed knowledge of specific stuff, relentlessly uncovered by science and its practitioners: for example (to mention a few off the top of my head) such as how is the blood transferred through the human body, what is an atom, or a molecule for that matter, how your eye works, and how, having split the atom, you can, using that information, create a bomb that is capable of destroying whole cities and hundreds of thousands of people ( and other creatures) at a single stroke.
Since all of this knowledge has been accumulated through our education system, using the huge global network of universities especially created to be the centre of knowledge-creation, one would have imagined that an essential part of the whole system would have been to ensure that whatever knowledge we accumulated, it should be measured by its broadest effects, just to make sure it doesn’t destroy the air, water and soil on which all life depends.
My attention has been drawn to this subject by an article I read this week about a gigantic failure created by none other than that highly-educated, deeply moral group of human beings who inhabit The Netherlands, more commonly known as Dutchmen. In 1968 an inland sea was drained to make way for two new cities, a Dutch specialty as everybody knows. An area slated for industrial use turned into a marshy area as it lay undeveloped, and a Dutch ecologist developed a scheme for using cattle and horses living in the wild, to mimic the grazing of now-extinct herbivores in what became known as a re-wilding scheme. The idea was to allow natural processes to determine herbivore populations. Although the experiment was still being lauded as recently as 2013, it fell prey to what can now be seen to be a rookie mistake: without predators, the population grew every summer until they “ate themselves out of house and home,” to coin a phrase. So many animals died of starvation that they had to be culled, and the resulting scenes of starved animals lying over the land have since prompted 125,000 people to sign a petition pleading for a stop to animal cruelty at this noble experiment.
Before we start to chortle over the Dutch and their simplicity, we have made exactly the same rookie mistake right here in Canada, one that I came across while researching a film about the fate of the bison after it was reduced to almost extinction in the nineteenth century, much of the killing across the American prairies having been purpose-built, as it were, to deprive recalcitrant Indian tribes of their primary food source, and make them more vulnerable to settler control.
Anyway, lets get back to the latter decades of the nineteenth century when an Indian by the name of Walking Coyote walked four bison calves cross the Continental divide, and settled down to raise them in the Flathead reserve, of which he was a member. Walking Coyote fell victim to the demon drink, and was eventually found dead under the bridge in Missoula, but he had already sold his bison to a Mexican rancher called Michel Pablo, who raised them on the reserve along with his cattle, from which they caught various diseases, such as brucellosis and bovine tuberculosis. When in 1905 the reserve was opened for homesteading, Pablo had to sell his herd, and a Canadian government agent in nearby Great Falls managed to persuade his bosses that they should buy Pablo’s herd, so they did, snatching this almost-last existent bison herd from under the noses of furious American conservationists.
They had no idea how many animals they had bought, but they began to round them up every summer, finding them scattered all through the hills of this beautiful country. After five summers, they had not only rounded up 700 animals, but had managed to load them into rail wagons, and transport them north to Canada, where they had established a special reserve for them near Wainwright, Alberta. I wouldn’t be surprised to find, although I have no basis for saying this, that this was probably the biggest animal conservation effort ever undertaken in the world to that time, and it was completed by a team of cowboys “who just loved bison”, as they said, without a single loss. Furthermore the operation was filmed in each of the five summers, and I discovered the glass plates bearing those photos in the University of Montana in Missoula, so in our NFB film, called The Great Buffalo Saga, we were able to reconstruct the capture and loading of the animals in some detail, using these glass plates.
Now we come on to the part of the story relevant to the incident with which I opened this piece. The last of the 700 animals arrived in Wainwright in 1912: by the early 1920s, they had multiplied to around 4,500 or more, so successfully that, to use the same phrase as before, they were “eating themselves out of house and home,” increasing their population 25 per cent as year, to such a point that a significant cull had to be instituted every year, much to the dismay of many animal-lovers. By 1925, the population was up to 10,000.
So much for our simplistic knowledge of the balance that nature keeps among animals between predators and prey. Not to keep you in suspense, I’ll finish the story of the purchased herd, and deal with other aspects of this subject in a later Chronicle. A great debate as to their future was undertaken among wildlife experts in the West. Some favoured transferring the herd to Wood Buffalo National Park, which straddles the border between Alberta and the Northwest Territories, and which, at 44,807 square kilometres, is considerably larger than Belgium. Of course, Wood Buffalo Park had its own herd of Wood Buffalo, recognized as being a different species from Pablo’s Plains Buffalo (in North America, Buffalo and Bison are used interchangeably). The fear was that they might not only interbreed, but that in doing so, the introduced herd might impregnate the resident herd with its diseases.
This in fact is what happened. For many years an effort was made to inoculate all of the buffalo in the southern part of the park against these diseases, but they never succeeded in rounding up enough at any one time to provide an effective deterrent to the diseases, and the programme was abandoned.
Eventually, however, the rangers discovered a herd of Wood Buffalo that was clear of these diseases in the far north of the park. Bingo! It might still be possible to preserve after all a pure herd of Wood Buffalo, the taller, slenderer, and much bigger version of the prairie animal.
The way I heard the story when we were making the film in 1984, 77 of these bison were loaded on trucks and transported north by the wildlife scientists in 1963: by the time they arrived, only 17 were still alive. In some research papers I have read this week, the writers have carefully not mentioned that en route loss (if, indeed it ever happened.) But they do confirm that 18 bison were established in a free-ranging area north of Great Slave Lake, and they do confirm a considerable success. By 1989 the 18 had grown to 2,400. They fluctuated between 1,800 and 2,000 in the next ten years, then declined to the estimated population of 851 in 2016 --- a slight recovery from the 2013 population of 706. (These fluctuations are attributed to several factors, one of which has recently been claimed to have been climate change, as lakes in that area of the country have grown larger and flooded good grazing grounds).
It is impressive, reading these reports, how thorough is this programme to save these huge and impressive animals from extinction. A great deal of money has been spent on trying to establish up to five free-ranging herds, in essence running in the face of the fact that this huge animal really cannot co-exist with the presence on the same land of people and our many and varied works. The Mackenzie Sanctuary, north of Great Slave Lake, is reckoned successful; a similar effort to establish a herd in Jasper National Park failed, because the bison travelled so far, 150 miles in the first month, through habitat that did not make it easy for them to survive; 28 animals released in the Nahanni district of the North-west Territories had variable success, especially when some travelled south into agricultural lands in B.C; but the effort that has most warmed the hearts of the people running the programme, has been the successful attempt to establish a herd in Northern Manitoba, where no bison were ever spotted, historically. The place chosen lies in the northern part between Lakes Manitoba and Winnipeg, but the determinant in this case was the enthusiastic support granted the project by the Waterhen First Nation, which undertook management of the animals, their rearing, growth and release into the wild.
So, this is a story that began back in 1905, and has continued with unabated attention of both scientific community, small public groups, and governments, in a fashion that, if you ask me, Canadians should really be proud of.