What I intended to write about yesterday was not the state of free expression as between publicly-funded and privately-funded media, but, rather, simply the story of that documentary movie I worked on at the National Film Board, The Great Buffalo Saga. I have always liked this story of how people worked to ensure that the bison that once lived in millions across the plains of North America, should not become extinct.
I knew nothing at all about this subject when I set out to research it, but by the time I finished I realized it was a completely typical Canadian story, in that Canada’s government had carried out an action unequalled anywhere in the world at the time, and yet in our own time, half a century later, only a handful of specialists had ever heard of it.
By 1880, in one of the greatest mass killings in history, the bison had been reduced from the 15 million that once roamed the plains, to a mere handful of survivors, probably no more than 1,000. Somewhere in our wanderings we dug up a fellow called Doug Allard, who kept an Indian trading post in Montana, and was the descendant of a French-Canadian family that had played a fairly central role in the bison survival story.
Doug, a colourful, talkative fellow, told us the story began in the 1880s, when a Flathead Indian called Samuel Walking Coyote, who had run away to the sweetgrass country of Saskatchewan with a woman, decided he was going back home to try to re-establish his relationship with his wife. As a peace offering, he gathered up a small number of bison calves --- Doug wasn't sure whether there were four or six, but thought five was about right --- and embarked with them on a 250-300 mile tramp across the Continental Divide, no small undertaking when driving a number of bison calves.
Although much changed by modern life, this is still one of the most beautiful areas in the United States, lying just south of the contiguous national parks, Waterton Lakes in Canada, and the very much larger Glacier National park in the United States. Walking Coyote ran the herd freely in his home reservation, but when he fell on hard times he sold them to two men, a part-native, part-Mexican called Michel Pablo, and the original Doug Allard, now claimed as his great-grandfather by our friend Doug.
“It was a kind of sad ending for Walking Coyote, being found dead under the bridge in Missoula,” says the current Doug Allard. “There is another story that my great-grandfather ended up with all Walking Coyote’s money a couple of days after his death. Now, I don’t know how that might have happened, My great-grandfather was an honorable man, but he might have won it in a card game, or something like that.”
When the original Allard died in 1886, he and Pablo had 300 animals, so far as they could count them --- for they were scattered far and wide throughout the large Indian reservation. But at about the same time, the government was opening the reservation for homesteading, so there would be no more room for such a large herd of animals.
Michel Pablo offered to sell his herd to the American government, but his offer was rejected. He then got in touch with his friend Alexander Ayotte, employed as a Canadian immigration officer in nearby Great Falls. He got in touch with the director of Canada’s newly-minted National Parks service, Howard Douglas, who understood the importance of the offer, and badgered the Canadian Minister of the Interior, Frank Oliver, until the latter agreed to undertake the purchase.
Douglas travelled to Missoula, where he deposited a $40,000 cheque in a local bank. The bank manager told him American conservationists were livid that Canada was being allowed to buy the animals, and he was certain they would have been ready to pay half a million dollars for them. But Pablo must have been offended by the Americans and was determined not to deal with the US government.
Pablo now was confronted with rounding up the biggest herd of wild animals on the continent, a formidable task.
“The man in charge of the round-up, Charlie Allard, was a hero of mine," said his descendant, Doug, bursting with family pride. Charlie was the captain of the first football team of the University of Montana, but there was no record of his ever having been a student. While living in Missoula and playing football, according to one story, this hero hired a railroad car, took it to the station in the small town of Ravalli, and drove it to a place called Wild Horse Lake, where they had a week-long party that has become an item in the social history of Montana.
The round-up of the bison for transport to Canada was a huge enterprise that required all the outdoor skills that marked the residents of this state which, even as late as 1905 was close to living the life of the wild west. Charlie Allard was in charge of the operation, and day after day dawn to dusk, the teams of riders scoured the immense territory looking for bison. The wild animals, once they got moving, could outrun any horse, and when cornered did not go quietly. Dozens of horses either collapsed from exhaustion or were killed in encounters with the dangerous animals, but slowly, they managed to drive the animals along a narrow pathway towards the railhead, where they fought desperately not to be coaxed into the rail cars. It took the riders a month to round-up twenty animals, and they began to think it would take many years to load the whole herd.The Northern Railroad company complied by modifying the railcars to aid in the capture of the animals, and it was all watched by Howard Douglas, who came down from Canada to oversee the operation. Many local people turned up to watch, and they told stories of terrified animals bashing their way through the walls of the railcars in an effort to escape. First, they had to be coaxed, until a rope could be established over their horns, by which they were then pulled by a long rope into the cars. Gradually, the cowboys became more expert, and within a week the train was full, and was able to depart.
In Canada, near Wainwright, Alberta, a special national park had been created to house the animals.
The operation drew people from the villages surrounding Edmonton, and crowds as big as a thousand sat in the grass watching as the railcars were offloaded and the huge animals ran free in their own park. The operation in Montana took five years to complete. By 1909 they designed a crate that they used for each individual animal. In total they transported, without a single loss of life, some 716 animals. The famous wildlife artist Charles M Russell painted the operation, and I was personally delighted when I was told that the loading had been photographed every year by photographers, whose old-fashioned glass prints were available in the University of Montana archives. They agreed to our borrowing the plates so that we were able to include in our film a very life-like version of the rounding up and transferring of the biggest herd of wildlife ever moved anywhere in the world up to that time
In the Wainwright park things did not go so well: or, to put it another way, things went so well that within a few years there were 8,000 bison, eating themselves out of habitat. For some years they conducted a discreet cull, and one sharpshooter was reputed to have killed 28,000 bison during the 1920s.We spoke to one delightful 93-year-old, Bud Cotton, who had been a rider on the first transfer north, and was also involved when the decision was made to transfer the herd from Wainwright into the Wood Buffalo National Park --- one of the largest national parks in the world at the time, with an area bigger than Belgium --- that straddles the Alberta-NWT border.
The Plains bison of the southern herd were infected with tuberculosis and there was a concern that they would intermingle with, and infect, the Wood Bison in the northern park. Nevertheless the transfer was made, and the inevitable happened. By the 1960s, there were an estimated 12,000 bison in the park, infected with tuberculosis and later with anthrax. A programme of inoculation against TB was begun, but they found it impossible to reach more than 4,000 in any one summer, and finally abandoned the project.
A small herd of Woods Bison had been found in the far north of the park that appeared not to have been affected by the introduced bison, and a decision was made to take some of them, and introduce them into an area north of Great Slave Lake as the first in a programme to re-establish free-ranging bison herds in different parts of Canada. Some 77 of these bison were crated and transferred north. Only 18 survived the journey, but these 18 apparently have managed to become settled, with a very much larger number, but one that in recent years has been reported again to be diminishing.
That’s about as far as I was able to take my investigation of the fate of bison. This is certainly a magnificent animal --- the biggest animal native to North America – and it is encouraging that a great deal of detailed work seems to be underway to ensure their survival.