01 June 2012

Chasing bison in PANP: The Approach

This is part of a series by Jerod, about his bison research.  All photos are by Jerod, unless noted otherwise.

West Side Road, Prince Albert National Park (PANP)
Photo courtesy of Georges Kedl

As I approach, I can barely find an opening through the trees.  I just dismounted my bike, and I am slowly pushing it towards the meadow, making as little sound as possible.  Before I can make out the shapes of any animals through the thickness of the quaking aspen, I hear the strong soothing grunt of a cow bison.  I carefully turn my head in the direction of the sound, hoping to catch a glimpse – kind of silly because I still cannot see into the meadow. 

Hearing this grunt causes drastic changes in my behavior.  First, I think about the wind – which direction is it coming from, and is my scent heading straight into the meadow?  I think about what part of the meadow the bison could be in.  Is it a big group?  My mind races through all of the possibilities. 

I continue to walk towards the meadow, keeping my eyes focused in the direction of that audible clue.  Just as I approach the edge between the thick forest and the wide open meadows, which characterizes Prince Albert National Park, I see a dark spot foraging in tall grass.  The bison stands with its rear end towards me, and I can see its small tail waving away the swarms of insects which spend their lives harassing the habitants of the northern ecosystems.

I need to be quiet because my goal is to get close enough to the group, without them noticing, so I can begin to collect information.  As a part of my Ph.D. research, I am studying the population dynamics of bison.  For example, how big is the population, and is it increasing or decreasing?  I take notes about the size of the group, and the number of calves, juveniles, and adult males and females that make up the group.

In addition to the vital group size and composition information, I also identify individual animals using photography.  Using software similar to that used for tracking human fingerprints, I take pictures of the faces of individual bison, and take measurements of unique characteristics of their horns and faces.  With this information, each animal can be uniquely identified in our database of photos.  Using this method we can compile a photographic capture history for each individual.  After taking photos day after day, we can also begin to understand how many individuals there are in the population.

PANP bison foraging in a wet meadow

I find a spot with good cover and I peer around the corner for a better look.  With my binoculars, I can see that this is a group, not just one lonely animal.  I decide that my observation angle would be better if I cut back into the forest and approach the meadow from the opposite direction.  I drop off my bike, grab my data forms and camera, and head back into the bush.  Just before I go back into the trees, I take one more look at the meadow, and make sure the bison are still there…

Jerod Merkle
15 May 2012
Prince Albert National Park


Dominika said...

Your job seems exciting, Jerod!  I'd love to take bison mug shots too :)) 

Ger_killeen said...

Great account, Jerod! It's fascinating to me that there's software to help identify individuals: no more names like Lumpy and Grumpy!

Ann said...

I'm looking forward to reading more!  I hope the bugs aren't too bad this year. :) 

fruit.root.leaf. said...

So far, they haven't been too bad.  It has still been cool enough that they aren't out in full force...yet.

fruit.root.leaf. said...

Well, summer field assistants are required each summer - they have to be willing to work 6 long days a week in the mud, bike 10+ miles a day, and fight flies and mosquitoes all summer long!  

On the other hand, it is really cool to watch bison, and see how they interact, and to do it all in the name of science.

fruit.root.leaf. said...

Thanks, Ger!

The software is pretty cool, absolutely.  Although, well-known, or recognizable animals probably will still receive nicknames.  

Auntie Trudy said...

 I've been reading your fruit.leaf, and certainly enjoy it.  Starting that sketching class sure sounds like a very cool thing to do.....and what a great way to meet similar minded folks!  And, by the way, Uncle Lou thinks Jerod  must have one of the coolest jobs in the world....being outdoors and seeing/studying wildlife every day....what could be cooler??!!

fruit.root.leaf. said...

Hi Auntie Trudy,
Thanks for the great comments!  Glad to hear you are reading and enjoying!  I agree - Jerod has the coolest job!  Somedays, I think I definitely missed the boat, and should've been a biologist, too. :)

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