Closeup/The Environment

Re-endangered species

Yes, the buffalo is alive. But it’s far from well

Suzanne Zwarun February 20 1978
Closeup/The Environment

Re-endangered species

Yes, the buffalo is alive. But it’s far from well

Suzanne Zwarun February 20 1978

Re-endangered species

Closeup/The Environment

Yes, the buffalo is alive. But it’s far from well

Suzanne Zwarun

It was billed as the last buffalo hunt in America and the organizers sent out invitations to sportsmen to join the shoot, get in on the bloodshed because soon there would be no more blood to spill. “The Western Plains are stripped bare, the water holes no more know the suck of their feet in the mud, the dark clouds of the buffalo wallow are áben no more,” burbled the posters advertising the bargain-basement, closing out sale. But the year was 1926 and, by then, the buffalo hunt was little more than a promoter’s dream. The wild buffalo were gone ... long gone.

Once, North America had been black with bison. Sixty million, maybe 75 million, traveling in herds miles wide and tens of miles long, ranged the continent from Mexico to Alaska, from the eastern seaboard to the western coastline. Within 90 years they vanished, wiped out by the white man, first for food and clothing, later for the gourmet delicacy of their slate-blue tongues, still later for sheer sport. The hides and bodies were left to rot. Along with the passenger pigeon, the buffalo today would share museum space with the

posters of the last buffalo hunt if it hadn’t been for the incidental interference of one man. In 1873, a Pend d’Oreille Indian named Walking Coyote, wintering with the Piegans on Alberta’s Milk River, cut from a skeleton herd four calves—two bulls, two heifers—to begin the world’s greatest conservation story. Back home in Montana, Walking Coyote bred his pets, sold their offspring, drowned in the booze

bought with the wealth the buffalo brought him, and was quickly forgotten. The Canadian government, instead, won world renown for nabbing the buffalo from the brink of extinction and providing inspiration for conservationists as the protected herds grew.

Until now. Once again the buffalo is in trouble. The largest herd in the world, the hairy, hoary beasts that still roam wild and free through Canada’sNorth, has dwindled drastically. In Wood Buffalo National Park, where as many as 15,000 may have blundered about 20 years ago, the official count now is around 6,000, fewer animals than were released there 40 years ago. Just outside the boundaries of the park—

straddling the Alberta-Northwest Territories border—the Hook Lake bison herd has dived from 2,500 to 750. Immense losses with grim portents, but nobody seems to agree on the reasons.

Are they being killed by wolves? A war, with “Kill the wolves” as the battle cry, has flared in the North. Hunters? Some claim native hunters in the region are killing indiscriminately. Bureaucratic bungling? There are many who would banish the herd’s protectors to outer Ottawa. Disease? About 40% of the herd has tuberculosis; brucellosis, which causes abortions, is rampant; and anthrax has decimated the herds in five outbreaks since 1962.

Roger Brunt, a Fort Smith, NWT, taxidermist has led the battle to exterminate wolves. “I’ve skinned 350 in the past three years, but if they were endangered, I’d be fighting just as hard for them.” He is fighting instead for the buffalo because he figures the northern herd has dropped by 8,000 in only four years and may well be doomed. He blames the government wildlife experts who, he claims, have horribly mismanaged the herds. Their latest blunder, Brunt contends, has been to ignore the wolf peril. “I have my own degree in game management,” he argues, “and I know the government can, and does, make serious mistakes.” He doesn’t discount the good

intentions of the herd’s keepers, but he is quick to spew a litany of blood-and-guts horror stories committed in the name of good intentions.

“The buffalo were first rounded up by airplane in February, 1962, and they were run so hard 16 of the 77 were permanently crippled. Three were lucky. They died right away. Thirteen lived a while.” Brunt says the buffalo’s back legs collapsed at the knee joint, and although they were kept two months in camps in hopes they’d heal, they died, one by one. “Their legs froze from the knee down and gangrene set in. When the men tried to skin them (for autopsy) they found the lower legs frozen like wood. From the knee up, there was no

flesh left. It had turned to black pus, and when the men touched the animal’s legs, the skin wobbled as though it was full of water; when it was cut open, they said the stench was so bad they couldn’t stand it.”

In the winter of 1964, government experts decided to drive the buffalo to a gathering yard to innoculate them for anthrax, a deadly disease almost eradicated in Canadian domestic cattle. Bulldozers ripped a trail through the bush; helicopters were called in to drive the buffalo down it. “Hundreds died along the way,” says Brunt. “Their hooves split from running on frozen ground. Their lungs froze. They broke their legs and were literally driven into the ground. Many people in Fort Smith remember the buffalo staggering along with blood pouring from their frozen mouths. There were cows all along the road, dead, some with calves sticking halfway out of them.”

In another disease-control experiment, 577 were slaughtered. “They dropped off people with guns and chased the buffalo to them with helicopters. The skinners said they had no hope at all of keeping up with the shooters. The government people kept flying out of Fort Smith, some at lunch

hours, some on coffee breaks, to kill buffalo.” The last kill supplied buffalo burgers for Expo ’67. “Would people around the world have enjoyed them if they’d known how the slaughters took place?” Brunt wonders.

Parks Canada, which ran the slaughters and knew exactly what went on, eventually abandoned the notion that a national park could run an abattoir on the side. And with the closing of the slaughterhouse in 1967 went the dream, spread by a park superintendent in 1959, that the herd would hit

30.000 and be harvested for meat and wool for the nation.

Current government officials are secretly appalled by the tales of their predecessors’ infamy. However, no one has proved, according to Wood Buffalo superintendent Bernie Lieff, that the buffalo are on a drastic decline. The man who runs the 17,300-square-mile park (almost the size of Nova Scotia) points to inaccuracies in early counts. “The park population has been stable since 1975,” he says. “It doesn’t really matter whether we have 5,000 or

15.000 so long as they’re holding their own.”

But even Lieff agrees the Hook Lake herd, outside the park, isn’t holding its own. He doesn’t entirely condemn wolves, as do many others. Buffalo hunting has

been permitted outside the park since 1958, and Lieff speculates that buffalo just aren’t venturing beyond the protection of the park now; thus the Hook Lake herd isn’t getting new blood to expand.

Parks Canada, spurred perhaps by LiefTs caution, is still holding out against the Kill-the-Wolves lobby. But last winter, NWT government biologist Jack Van Camp kept close track of 13 wolves and con-

cluded that a single wolf pack can kill 50 adults or 100 calves a year. He reported the Hook Lake herd lost 345 animals between March, 1976, and March, 1977—41 were taken by sport hunters and 34 by local

hunters, while the remaining 120 adults and 150 calves were killed or scavenged by wolves. The NWT government capitulated, and the killing of wolves started outside the park.

When you speak of the buffalo, you must speak of sudden, violent, mass death, for that is their history. In the 200,000 or so years since the bison emigrated across the Bering Sea land bridge from Asia, nature has claimed millions. Their instinct-controlled brains led them, like 2,000-pound lemmings, to follow their leaders onto quicksand, rotten ice and over cliffs, until ravines were crammed so full of carcasses that the stragglers walked across safely on the bodies. In 1795, an explorer saw 7,360 drowned in a day on the Qu’Appelle River; in 1801, drowned buffalo floated down the Red River in an unbroken chain for two days and nights. Then, to the white man, buffalo killing was easily rationalized fun; eliminating the bison would shackle the Indians. And what point to risk lives chasing stampeding herds? Use machine guns. Shoot from trains puffing alongside the terrified, running animals. They fell at the rate of a million a year between 1830 and 1870: by 1900, there were only a handful of captives left, descendants of Walking Coyote’s pet herd.

He’d sold his herd in 1884, for $2,500, to a pair of Montana ranchers, C. A. Allard and Michel Pablo, who built it to 716 and sold it, in 1906, to the Canadian government. Canada paid $175,000, but, in a stroke of fiscal genius, demanded delivery to Edmonton—it took three years to round up fewer than 1,000 of the elusive animals and ship them a little more than 1,000 miles. The project blew the ranchers’ profits.

The 200-square-mile Wainwright Buffalo Reserve was created in southern Alberta to hold the herd; the buffalo devastated it. The herd shot to 8,000 and, by 1921, the government had built an abattoir and was slaughtering 1,000 a winter in a frenzied effort to ease overcrowding. When that failed to help, 6,673 young bison were shipped north to what was to become Wood Buffalo National Park and the remainder were shot.

Would it matter if the bison disappeared in a wilderness park so far north that only 5,000 tourists ever get there in a year? Superintendent Lieff thinks so. He gets letters from bison fans around the world, comforted somehow because there are bison still running free. “Canada is the last place in the world with wilderness left. That’s unique; that’s part of our national identity. And the bison is the perfect animal to remind us of it,” he says. It took the white man less than a century to press the buffalo to the brink of legend. Canada can only hope now that the infant art of wildlife management has weathered the worst of the buffalo problems, that the experts— this time—are right.&;^?