Plains bison calves, Old Man on His Back, SK (Photo by Don Getty)

Plains bison calves, Old Man on His Back, SK (Photo by Don Getty)

New bison research on NCC property will help protect species at risk

Team hopes to compare bison grazing to cattle grazing

A bison roams at Old Man on His Back ranch. (Photo by Mark Taylor)

A bison roams at Old Man on His Back ranch. (Photo by Mark Taylor)

New research at the Nature Conservancy of Canada’s (NCC’s) Old Man on his Back ranch will help shed light on the grazing patterns of bison versus cattle — hopefully leading to conservation practices that can help protect species at risk. The project is being led by former NCC conservationist Dale Gross and his supervising professor, Eric Lamb, of the University of Saskatchewan.

Grazing is an important part of grasslands landscapes. The ecosystem evolved to have bison run on it, eat the grass and fertilize it with their manure.

“Over thousands of years that becomes an adaptable ecosystem,” Gross said. “Well, that changed abruptly.”

Cows graze the grasslands landscape (Photo by NCC)

Cows graze the grasslands landscape (Photo by NCC)

Since settlement, bison have been replaced by cattle on the landscape. We know these two animals behave differently. Gross’s team wants to quantify those differences in response to management activities, including fire, to provide ranchers and conservation groups with information to better manage these grazers for both economic and ecological outcomes.  

Luckily, NCC has the perfect environment for the research. Old Man on His Back is a more than 13,000-acre (5,261-hectare) ranch that has sections reserved for bison and for cattle grazing. The high-quality ecosystem and size of the property are ideal for this scale of research.

“We can take this a lot further than most people get to with their research,” Gross said. “Old Man on His Back is a beautiful place.”

The bison and cattle will both be radio-collared. The team will track the animals remotely and look to answer questions such as:

  • How do different animals react to water, fenceline, fire, salt location and other variables?
  • How does managing these animals affect habitat for species at risk?
  • What are the economic costs and benefits of different animal management strategies?

Finding the answers to these questions will allow ranchers to manage their animals in a way that helps species at risk and also increase grassland productivity for their business.

This fascinating research has caught the eye of one philanthropist, allowing the work to grow. NCC Board member Eliza Mitchell pledged to donate $50,000 over the two years of the project. The research team was then able to receive a Mitacs grant, which matched $45,000 of that donation. Together, the generous funding will allow additional graduate students to join the team, and contribute to its success.

The research gets underway with initial experiments in the summer of 2017.

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