Plains bison (Photo by Karol Dabbs)

Plains bison (Photo by Karol Dabbs)

Walking with the bison

Plains bison (Photo by Kim Bennett)

Plains bison (Photo by Kim Bennett)

The sun slowly emerges from under the horizon line along the Nature Conservancy of Canada’s (NCC’s) Old Man on His Back Prairie and Heritage Conservation Area (OMB) in southwestern Saskatchewan. There is a gentle, but cold, breeze rolling in, creating a thin fog over the tall grasses cascading across the prairie. In the distance, a small herd of plains bison are consuming a hearty breakfast, their quiet grazing adding to the picture-perfect scene.

Bison calf (Photo by Kim Bennett)

Bison calf (Photo by Kim Bennett)

Plains bison, once numbering in the millions, are now considered threatened in Canada. Commercial herds are slowly increasing across the prairies, but not many herds are managed like the herd at OMB, where less than 100 bison have 6,000 acres (2,428 hectares) to graze and very little contact with humans.

New research on this iconic landscape will help shed light on the grazing patterns of bison versus cattle — hopefully leading to conservation practices that can help protect species at risk that evolved with thousands of years of bison grazing. The project is being led by former NCC conservationist Dale Gross and his supervising professor, Eric Lamb, of the University of Saskatchewan.

Radio collars fitted on bison allows for tracking of the herd's movement. (Photo by Kim Bennett)

Radio collars fitted on bison allows for tracking of the herd's movement. (Photo by Kim Bennett)

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. NCC uses cattle grazing on our properties to emulate natural processes to conserve biodiversity.

Since settlement, bison have been replaced by cattle on the landscape. Gross’s team wants to quantify the differences between the two species to provide ranchers and conservation groups with information to better manage these grazers for 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 with pastures reserved for bison and cattle grazing. There are currently 11 patrons that graze cattle on OMB. The ranch is also home to approximately 100 bison. The high-quality ecosystem and size of the property are ideal for this scale of research.

Bison roundup for radio collaring. (Photo by Kim Bennett)

Bison roundup for radio collaring. (Photo by Kim Bennett)

In order to take a closer look at the two species, NCC staff and partners from the University of Saskatchewan worked with OMB’s neighbours and patrons to fit collars onto 17 cattle and nine bison. The collars fitted on bison during this winter’s round up will stay on until next year’s round up. During the next year, the collars will record the bison’s location every 30 minutes, giving the researchers a map of where the bison spend their time. Likewise, collars fitted onto patrons’ cattle this spring, recorded livestock movement during the summer. This three-year project could easily be extended into a long-term study with the potential to answer management questions for the livestock industry as well as conservationists. The hope is that OMB will be a hub for this and other fascinating research projects into the future.

As part of our commitment to science-based conservation, NCC is redeveloping our bison herd management plan. The timing is excellent as NCC will be able to incorporate some of the preliminary findings of the research while working with other bison experts to improve the management of these majestic animals and the prairie they call home.

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