13 February 2013

Chasing Bison: The Great White North

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

One element of my (Jerod's) study is to evaluate if your location on the landscape has an influence on your level of stress.  In other words, are there places on the landscape that stress you out more than others?  This question is important because it provides us a link between behavior (i.e., where animals go) and survival and successful producing young.  For example, if you are stressed out all the time, your digestion efficiency decreases, and if you are a lactating female, you can't produce milk as well either.

In the summer, we just use rubber gloves, plastic baggies and
spoons to collect scat.  This time of year, it takes a chisel and a hammer.

That's me (Jerod) on the left, with Joanne from Parks Canada (right).

In summer, there are the mosquitoes and the heat, but winter in Prince Albert National Park is another situation entirely. In order to better understand our stress results from the summer (derived from fresh bison scat samples), we are collecting scats in winter, too. This means I am out here in Saskatchewan for almost two months, in the dead of winter.

Our tracks across a big (frozen) lake
You might think it sounds awful, or like a grand adventure, depending on your preferences.  We found a totally different world from the lush green of summer - deep snow, temperatures well below zero Fahrenheit, and bison that are more dispersed across the landscape (i.e., it is easier to move in winter because water bodies become frozen highways!). 

Aside from a bit of truck trouble on the drive west, everything is going pretty well.  The weather so far is great for field work, and seeing all the animal tracks in the snow is never ending fun!

Here's a taste of winter in "the great white north."

Bison scat and trail through the snow

The snow is above my knees everywhere, 
and really deep in some places.


Gene said...


Scott said...

Wow—cool pictures (maybe dxxx cold).Questions: 1. Does the sun rise and set in the North?  How long is there daylight to work in each day?  Can you tell the days are getting longer?2.  Do the bison bed down at night like they do in the summer?  Does the mating season start with the warmer temps or is it the change in the sun solstice gradient?  3. It looks like the deep snow gives you a place to sit while you gather scat.  You probably do not have to bend over as far.  If it is snowing a lot, how do you find scat that is getting covered-up?

Jerod said...


I enjoyed all your questions...  Here is an attempt to answer them!

We are not quite far enough north to see the sun rising in the north.  That said, it does seem to almost rise in the northeast.  And, then once it is up, it almost circles the sky, instead of going overhead.  It always feels like 5pm, no matter what time of day it is.  The sun is up from about 9 to 5... but we have about 1 hour of twilight on each end.  I was surprised how much light we have.  I envisioned shorter days.  And, yes, they are getting longer, and it is easy to tell!  

I think the bison do bed down a little more at night than during the day.  But, they do eat and travel at night, that is for sure.  Breeding season is in late summer... there is a long period between mating and birth (mate July, birthing May) because those babies need to be ready to go when they are born (they can walk and even run within minutes of being born).  It is a different story for wolves.  Their breeding season is February, and they birth in April.  But those wolf puppies are blind and helpless when they are born!

As for sitting on the snow, it is not quite that easy.  The snow here is like powdered sugar, so it is not very strong.  If you sit down on it, you will surely fall over.  I usually just dig myself a little spot with my foot.  We have some pads to sit on the ground with, and that buffers you from the cold snow.  
As for finding scats, since the snow is so fluffy, it is really easy to just shuffle along until you find a football sized rock suspended 10 inches from the ground!  We don't have to do this too much, because even if it snows a foot, the digging, the beds, and the bison trails are easily noticeable.  This, then, gives us a great starting point to search.  Particularly the beds, after bison get up from a nap, they most always relieve themselves!Glad you guys are enjoying the photos.

Mat said...

Excellent! It's good to know that you're doing well, and that you're enjoying the snow and a real winter! Not that I can complain right now (~75 °F, never really need pants or a sweater)...

Keep up the good work!

Jerod said...

 Je suis jaloux que tu peux porter des shorts!

Mat said...

Are you kidding me? Less than 60°C since this week-end. Never been so cold in my entire life! We don't even have heaters in our apartment!

And actually, after 3 years (that is, 3 winters) in Québec without a single health problem, I manage to get a cold here! 

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