28 August 2012

Chasing bison: What's it all about?

This is part of a series by Jerod, about his bison research.   This post and most of the photos are by Bethann.

Bison bull (photo by Jerod A. Merkle, 2012)

I had an opportunity to visit Jerod out in Saskatchewan this summer.  In early August, I took a ~4,600-mile road trip, from Quebec City to Prince Albert National Park.  When I arrived, Jerod was just wrapping up his field season, and another team, led by Jerod's labmate Marie Sigaud, was just getting started.  I had a chance to tag along with both teams, and had a great time sketching "bazillions" of dragonflies, frogs, bison, aspen trees, and more.  There were wild berries galore, great food, and fantastic weather.  We even had a respectable thunderstorm one evening!  

Keep reading for photos and sketches from the trip, accompanied by an article I recently published in the QCT about Jerod's study.  The article explains the study in a little more detail, making it a great companion to Jerod's series about his field work.

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Bison herd in recently cut alfalfa field, outside the park.
For a sense of scale, the square-ish light colored forms are 
large hay bales, while the darker ones are bison.

Laval University students study a unique Canadian bison herd

American Bison (bison bison), also known as buffalo, are most closely related to the European bison, and are not closely related to the “true buffalo” species, the Asian water buffalo and the African buffalo. Once widespread, American Bison exist today only in isolated populations, and conservation is a complex and intriguing combination of activism, politics and research. The QCT recently enjoyed an in-depth, on-location experience with local researchers who are studying a unique Canadian bison herd. 
Jerod & Marie, listening for collar signals

Daniel Fortin, a professor in the Laval University Department of Biology, is supervising Jerod Merkle and Marie Sigaud. Fortin has been studying the Prince Albert National Park (PANP) herd since 1995, and began directing an on-going study of this herd in 2005. Marie Sigaud and Jerod Merkle are international students pursuing doctorates in wildlife biology at Laval University. These two students, from France and the United States respectively, are involved in a long-term study of the Sturgeon River plains bison herd which lives in Prince Albert National Park. Located in central Saskatchewan, the PANP population is unique in Canada, as they are the only free-ranging plains bison currently found within their historic range. It is one of three fully wild (i.e. free-ranging) bison herds in Canada but the only one which is in the historic range of bison where one could have seen bison in the past.

Historically, bison in North America ranged across most of the continent, from Alaska and western Canada, across the United States and into Mexico. However, by the late 1800s, bison had been hunted almost to extinction. Remnant herds, in places like Yellowstone National Park (USA), were all that remained of the vast pre-European populations. For many years, it was not clear whether the populations could ever be restored, even if only in limited areas of their former ranges.

Sketch of Long Meadow, a popular grazing
site for bison inside the park boundary.
Over a century later, the bison saga continues. According to a 2011 report by Parks Canada, in 2004 the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) recommended to the federal government that plains bison should be listed as a ‘Threatened Species.”

A tipi set up in "Dry One," a meadow
used by bison early in the summer.
Canada’s bison population is estimated at less than 1200 individuals distributed in six populations in western Canada. Among them, the PANP herd was established in 1969, when 50 bison were released north of the park in order to provide an additional, natural food source for First Nations hunters. As the bison dispersed, a small group worked their way south into PANP, and became the founders of the current PANP herd.

Their numbers have grown, with a peak in the mid-2000s at around 500 individuals. Today, the population is estimated at 200, and the bison range throughout the southwest corner of the park and onto adjacent agricultural properties.

Bison naturally migrate, following seasonal availability of their preferred food sources. Ideally, these bison will continue to range freely, but the concerns of neighboring landowners cannot be ignored. Bison weigh from 318 to 1,000 kg (700 to 2,200 lb), can run 56-64 kph (35-40 mph), and have been observed jumping 6-foot tall fences. As a result, bison were never truly domesticated, and in addition to grazing on private pastures, the PANP bison may just make their neighbors a bit nervous.

More bison in the alfalfa field.  We estimated around
140 bison were in this group on this particular morning.
Early research on this herd concentrated on identifying core habitat, preferred food sources, and other descriptive aspects of their ecology. More recently, Fortin’s students have been working on increasingly complex aspects of this herd’s behavior. Merkle’s research seeks to answer questions related to how bison remember where they have been, and whether stress and other factors influence what areas bison prefer from year to year. Sigaud’s research focuses on why the bison leave the park, and why they appear to prefer grazing on farmland. She said, “We want to work with the park and the local landowners, to help find a solution that allows the animals to move without causing too much damage.” She added, “We work closely with a local conservation group known as the Bison Stewards, and I spend a lot of time talking to farmers, because I make most of my observations on farmland where the bison spend a lot of time in the fall.”

Sketch of aspen forest, typical throughout this area of PANP.
The situation is further complicated by the principal reason for releasing bison in the region - enhancing food sources for First Nations hunters. This continues to be a key factor for this herd, as local indigenous hunters harvest an undocumented number of animals each year. They are legally allowed to do so, and are limited only by requiring permission to access to private property adjacent to the park. Sigaud noted, “Until we know how many animals are harvested each year, it will be difficult to fully identify what factors limit the herd’s population and range.”

A freshly cut hay field.  The bison like the re-growth, so may well
be grazing here within one to two weeks after the hay is cut.
Between their two projects, Merkle and Sigaud also hope to identify whether social relationships play a significant role in bison movement. “In a nutshell,” Merkle said, “the question is, ‘Are there individual females or males who strongly influence where the rest of the herd goes?’” Merkle concluded, “If we can answer questions like this, about stress, memory, and social networks, we may be able to help the park develop an even more effective management plan that ensures bison in the future while minimizing conflicts.”

To learn more about the PANP bison herd, visit this Parks Canada wepage.

Bison observed within the park boundary (photo by Jerod A. Merkle, 2012)


Gene said...

Wonderful article, Bethann!  So glad you had the opportunity to go there.

Bethann said...

Thanks, Gene.
It was really nice to get to go out there and see it for myself.

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