History of Bison

JILLIAN OVERBY

TEULON COLLEGIATE INSTITUTE

HISTORY OF BISON

From A Manitoba Perspective

Bison once roamed North America in the millions. These herds sustained the First Nations people living on The Great Plains of North America. These shaggy beasts, the largest land mammal in North America provided aboriginal peoples with food, shelter, clothing, fuel, utensils, ornamentation and many other uses. Bison fuelled the fur trade, providing an easily transportable food ration in the form of pemmican. The Metis people relied heavily on the bison for their livelihood.

Manitoba has played a significant role in the history of bison. Fossils, bones, rubbing stones, wallows and historical accounts indicates that bison were present in Manitoba. Manitoba’s flag and The Manitoba Legislature include bison.

James McKay (circa 1870)

In 1870 Charlie Alloway came to Winnipeg as a private in The Wolsely expedition. While on a hunting and trading adventure he witnessed a bison herd of over one million lope past him. However within a few years, he saw the demise of these great herds. In 1873 and 1874 Alloway along with another Manitoban, James McKay captured a few bison calves. These calves were placed in a pasture in what is now present day Winnipeg. By 1878 the herd had grown to 13. In 1879 the herd was sold to Col. Samuel Lawrence Bedson, Warden of Stony Mountain Penitentiary.

Col. Samuel Lawrence Bedson 1842 - 1891

The herd was moved to the bog area adjacent to Stony Mountain close to present day Oak Hammock Marsh. By 1888 the herd had multiplied to over 100, but the pressure of settlement forced Bedson to disperse his herd. Some were given to zoos. Others were given to Donald Smith (Lord Strathcona) who gave them to the Canadian Government which placed them in Banff National Park where they flourished. The majority of the herd was sold to C.J. “Buffalo” Jones of Kansas.

In the early 1870’s, Sam Walking Coyote captured some bison calves in southern prairie Canada. He herded these back to the Flathead Reserve in Montana.

By 1884 Sam’s herd had grown to 13. Two Metis, Charles Allard often called a “French Canadian” and his Mexican – Blackfoot ranching partner Michel Pablo decided to buy most of Sam’s herd. By 1893 the Allard-Pablo herd had grown to 100. Allard-Pablo also purchased the remnants of the Bedson herd from Jones.

Despite some animals being sold to U.S. zoos and game farms, the Allard-Pablo herd numbered almost 800 by 1906. In 1907, 716 animals from this herd were purchased by the Canadian Government for $150,000. It took over 5 years for the round up of this herd. Finally the bison were shipped via rail to Elk Island National Park in Alberta. A few years later most of the herd was sent to Wainwright, Alberta, a larger facility. To this day, Elk Island National Park is a source for pure plains bison. The bison at the Lake Audy plain in Riding Mountain National Park are descendants from Elk Island.

Canada has also played an equally important role in the conservation of wood bison. In 1900 there were only an estimated 500 wood bison left. Wood Buffalo National Park was established and the herd grew to 1500 by 1920. During the early 1920’s, 6,673 plains bison from Southern Alberta were moved to Wood Buffalo National Park with the assumption that they would not interbreed with the wood bison due to the distance between. Unfortunately, the two herds made contact and cross breeding did occur. In 1959, the Canadian Wildlife Service located a herd of wood bison in a remote corner of Wood Buffalo National Park. During the 1960’s some of these animals were removed to start herds at MacKenzie Bison Sanctuary and Elk Island National Park.

Surplus animals have been sent to establish or supplement other free-ranging herds. Some surplus animals have been sold to private ranches.

Manitoba has established a free-ranging herd of wood bison at Chitek Lake. The seed stock for this herd was initially released in 1991 with a second release in 1996 into a region between Lake Winnipegosis and Highway No. 6.

The preservation of the bison species is a remarkable conservation success story. During the last quarter of the twentieth century many ranchers and First Nation’s bands started to raise bison. This pushed the conservation effort forward at a rapid pace. As consumers became aware of bison meat, producers recognized the natural benefits of raising bison. This indigenous specie was well suited for the climate and the naturally occurring fauna of North America and particularly Manitoba.

Manitoba has made a huge contribution to the conservation of bison. From the efforts of Alloway, McKay and Bedson in the establishment of some of the seed stock of the present day plains bison herd to the recent establishment of the free ranging wood bison herd at Chitek Lake and ranching efforts – Manitobans have reintroduced a part of a healthy prairie and parkland ecosystem, namely the bison.

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