Thursday, January 9, 2020

My Log 780: January 9 2020: Chronicles from my Tenth Decade: 215: A tale about the history of the buffalo; a species, at first gravely abused and almost exterminated, and since coddled back to health, that has played a pivotal role in the history of the nation

An interesting article in a newspaper this morning has at last brought me up-to-date with a subject in which I took an intense, but peripheral interest while making a National Film Board film 35 years ago. namely, the fate of the bison.
Once the greatest animals in North .America, by stature as well as by sheer numbers,  with at a conservative estimate some 15,000,000 populating the plains, the bison, or buffalo, as they are now popularly called, shrank to an infinitesimal number, almost to the point of extinction, as a result of being ruthlessly hunted by the invading white settlers in and around the 1880s..
Canada has a huge national park devoted to the bison, the Wood Buffalo National Park straddling the Alberta-Northwest Territories border. The park is so huge that Canadians have scarcely grasped how big it is: marginally bigger, at 44,000 square kilometres, than Switzerland, for example, or Holland, which are both 3,000 square kilometres smaller.
The provenance of the bison population in the park is interesting: one story goes back to the daring of an Indian named Walking Coyote, who crossed the continental divide with four buffalo calves that he began to raise in his native Blackwater reserve, just over the international border in the United States. Walking Coyote was eventually found dead under a bridge in Missoula, Montana, but meantime he had sold his interest in the many  buffalo that had sprung from his four calves to a Mexican rancher. When Michel Pablo  died, a quick-thinking  representative of the Canadian government in Great Falls,  Montana managed to buy the herd, which was transferred north by rail between 1907 and 1912. No one knew how many animals were involved, but the number transferred was around 700.
They soon ate themselves out of habitat in the small park set up for hem near Wainwright, Alberta, and in the 1920s a major debate took place as to whether they should be transferred into the massive northern park, where the last of the pure wood buffalo lived . The prairie sub-species had become impregnated by  cattle during their many years of haphazard management in Montana. The wood buffalo sub-species is an altogether more imposing animal ---- taller, heavier, but slimmer, and with a more noticeable fur coat over its front quarters, a much more  statuesque animal than its prairie cousin. The scientists of the day did not want to muddy the gene pool.
Up to  the time we were making the film the primary interest had been in our need to preserve the distinct sub-species, the wood buffalo. In pursuit of this aim in the 1960s, a group of 40 or so wood buffalo that had not been fatally impregnated with the cattle genes was transferred to a remote spot north of Great Slave Lake, where those that survived the harrowing trip by truck, eighteen in number, were released.  This small number gave rise  in the next couple of decades to a herd of more than 1000, if I remember correctly, a notable success for the animal scientists responsible.
Up to the time I am writing about, the 1980s, the general movement among bison-minders was in the direction of saving their genetic makeup from being corrupted by outside influences. But according to the article in today’s Globe and Mail, in the intervening three or four decades the interest has changed to an effort to re-establish even from these corrupted heirs, something, or at least some pure-bred animals.
A number of indigenous tribes have been collaborating in this effort with the scientists, and appear to have at last won some success.
For their part the scientists have been working on a method of preserving semen by freezing, something they have now perfected and, if I understood correctly what I read (always a careful precaution to enter),  they have managed by careful programmes of artificial insemination to produce some 40 calves that they are convinced have reverted to the pure strain of plains bison, one whose scientific name is now apparently bison bison bison as distinct from the bison bison athabascae, the scientific handle of the woods bison and of bison bison to the original strain of plains bison.
Some Saskatchewan First Nations have been central to this development.  When we were making our film we were interested in what was being done at Elk Island National Park, a small park east of Edmonton, in which herds of plains and wood bison have been kept divided, their progeny to  be later used to implant small herds in different parts of the prairies. We filmed one such transfer, and used some archival footage to show the fruitless effort made earlier to vaccinate  the bison in the huge park to ensure their racial purity.  This effort foundered simply on the immense size of the park: the bison wandered all over it --- imagine, a park bigger than Switzerland and the effort needed to roundup every animal therein.  The rangers never found it possible to round up the whole herd. I seem to remember the best they ever managed to do was to vaccinate 4,000 out of the 12,000 estimated population at the time. So new measures were obviously necessary.
My conclusion from having worked on the film was that it was extremely encouraging  to find that the federal government, through its wildlife service, were going to such lengths to preserve a magnificent animal that had been driven to the edge of extinction by the insensate bloodlust of the early  prairie settlers, who did not hesitate to involve Indian tribesmen in their nefarious effort to wipe the animal from the face of the earth.  It is, however, clear that he Indians had only a small part of the campaign, which was one of the most successful animal extermination projects evr recorded: our archival footage showed scenes that must be familiar to Canadians, of huge piles of bison skulls, amounting to hundreds of thousands.
We discovered that the Americans had gathered the remains of what was left to them after the transport north of the majority of their remaining population into a smaller national park, known as the National Bison Range, which lies in a beautiful hilly countryside,  just south of the border  where we were permitted to shoot. Also, we found an invaluable photographic record of the actual 1907 transfer of the animals to Canada, recorded on the old-fashioned glass plates kept in the University of Montana in Missoula. So we were pleased that our film, overall, managed to give a good sense of the history of an animal species that has played an integral part in the history of Canada. The name of the NFB film is The Great Buffalo Saga, co-directed by myself and Michael McKennirey.


  1. I love these stories, ones that provide some cause for hope in these often very rocky times. And I see that your publication pace has picked up from last year, when it dropped a bit from the year before. Good show!

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