Wanuskewin’s humble herd is a shaggy summer showstopper

Feature | Gregory Beatty | June 9, 2022

Ancient Pathways, A Bison Biography
Wanuskewin Heritage Park
Until Aug. 26

Wanuskewin Heritage Park is a provincial treasure. From trails introducing visitors to land lived on by Indigenous peoples for thousands of years to its interpretive centre, amphitheatre and art exhibits, it’s been an essential Saskatchewan spot since opening to the public in 1992.

At the moment, the spotlight is on a project that stomped into the park in 2019. This spring and summer, herd is the word at Wanuskewin.

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In late May, Ancient Pathways, A Bison Biography opened at Wanuskewin. The exhibit is organized by the Kauffman Museum in Kansas, and is timed for an international bison convention that Saskatoon hosts in mid-July.

Ancient Pathways will be on the delegates’ itinerary. But I can almost guarantee it won’t be the most popular attraction at Wanuskewin. That’s no dis on the exhibit, which offers an interesting mix of historical information about bison and their millennia-long relationship with Indigenous people, and current efforts to revive the bison and build an industry around them [see sidebar].

But the real stars will be Wanuskewin’s small herd of bison — part of the $40-million Thundering Ahead campaign to revitalize the park and, hopefully, become Saskatchewan’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site.

“We are in the midst of preparing our submission,” said Wanuskewin archaeologist Ernie Walker in a recent phone interview. “It’s due in 2023, and if there are no hitches, we expect to have a decision in 2025. It sounds like a long time, but this is a very intensive endeavour. You basically have to prove to the rest of the world that you deserve to have this international designation.”

Making The Case

Archaeological evidence shows that Plains Indigenous people have gathered at Wanuskewin for 6,000 years. There are bison jumps onsite, so people would have camped there for extended periods, hunting bison, then butchering and processing them.

For Plains First Nations, bison were a critical resource. Virtually every scrap of the animal was used for food, clothing, shelter, tools and weapons, and even fuel, in the form of dried dung, which was a highly prized alternative to wood on the treeless prairies.

There are also Tipi rings and a rare northern medicine wheel, and now, after being hunted to near-extinction during the early days of colonization in the 1870s, bison have returned to Wanuskewin.

The project began in 2019, with the arrival of six female calves from Grasslands National Park and, a bit later from the U.S., a mature bull and four pregnant female bison that have ancestral ties to Yellowstone National Park. Historically, they represent the main herds that once roamed the North American plains.

Compared to bison at Grasslands, Wanuskewin bison have a limited range. But they’ve adapted well, says Walker. “They are the most spoiled animals on the planet. They’re tended to every day, and we’re watching them especially close these days because some cows are ready to drop calves.

“The bison are not free-ranging by any stretch, but this is no zoo,” he adds. “They have a fairly large area they can roam until probably November, with small paddocks where they water. Then we bring them in to do vaccinations, ear tags and pregnancy tests, and they’re kept in winter paddocks where they’re fed hay and oats.”

In two years, the herd has grown from 11 to 18 bison, with six to eight calves expected this spring. The plan is to expand the herd to 50, says Walker. “That’s what we think we can manage in terms of feed and areas to roam.”

Bison are susceptible to diseases such as tuberculosis and brucellosis, which are highly contagious. Capping the herd at 50, and having a vaccination program, will help prevent disease outbreaks.

The downside of a small herd is the potential for inbreeding. Wanuskewin has to plan for that too, says Walker.

“We have descendants from the two largest progenitor herds back in the 1870s, so for the next five years we’re probably fine. But with that small number, we will have to replenish our herd genetically. But that’s something we’re prepared for.”

Keystone Species

Another part of Wanuskewin’s UNESCO application is returning the park to prairie grassland. Before Wanuskewin was created, the land had been farmed for decades.

There’s a lot of science going on, with plant genetics and soil analysis needed to account for all the herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers that are on the land. But bison are part of the transformation, too.

Historically, they were a keystone species on the prairies, says Walker.

“They are choosy grazers, so unlike a lot of domesticated animals, they won’t graze right to the ground,” says Walker. “They’ll move off and go to another area. They’re really conservationists in that way.”

As the bison move around, they deposit waste which fertilizes the land, distributes seeds and alters soil chemistry. Through their pawing and wallowing behaviour, they have a physical impact on the land, too.

When bison graze and wallow, they stir up insects which birds are quick to feed on. Cowbirds even ride around on bison backs, which raises an interesting question, says Walker.

“If they’re riding around on the top of migrating bison herds, how do they reproduce? They can’t lay eggs on top of a bison. What they do is lay their eggs in other birds’ nests, and get them to hatch and feed their young,” he says.

Prairie dog towns often spring up near bison herds. That’s good for ferrets and other predators such as foxes, coyotes and raptors, along with burrowing owls, which nest in abandoned prairie dog burrows. Dung beetles and pronghorn antelope are other animals that benefit from bison — the former for obvious reasons, the latter in winter when bison use their heavy heads to push snow aside, which helps the antelope graze too.

All that happens in the wild, of course. At Wanuskewin, the biodiversity bump will be more modest. But it’s still important.

And it’s not the only contribution the bison have made to the UNESCO application since their arrival, either.

In 2019, says Walker, senior park staff were musing about the one thing they needed to make their application complete.

“What we didn’t have is any rock art. There are no cliffs or caves where rock art is usually located. But we do know that on the plains, many groups made what are called petroglyphs. They’re carvings into rock, and boulders were used.”

In August 2020, Walker recalls, staff were in the paddock where the bison water.

“Where they roll around and dust themselves, the vegetation was all denuded,” he says. “Lo and behold, a boulder was protruding with some carving on it which we thought was implement damage. But when we uncovered the rock, we found it was a ribstone. Then we found three other petroglyphs. The bison, in effect, showed us where they were.”

Ribstones are boulders carved in the shape of an animal’s ribcage.

The story gets better, says Walker. “Beside the ribstone was a stone knife, and when we measured the width of the cutting edge it was the same width as the grooves on the boulder. It was the tool used to carve the boulder. Whoever did that left their business card.”

It’s a compelling story that will add weight to Wanuskewin’s application. Stay tuned — someday soon, this humble herd might be a cornerstone of a World Heritage Site.


Art And Artifacts

While the industry part of Ancient Pathways, A Bison Biography will no doubt be interesting, the part Wanuskewin curator Olivia Kristoffwas most looking forward to seeing was the historical material on the Indigenous relationship with bison. Items on display include antique arrows and rifles, bleached buffalo skulls, painted buffalo hides and other artifacts, archival photos and more (bisonexhibit.org).

Colonization, sadly, is part of that story too. To clear the way for settlement and cattle ranching, the vast herds of bison that Plains First Nations relied on were systematically slaughtered. The meat and hides were sold. And the bones? Ground up for fertilizer and fine china.

“The First Nations had to follow the bison because that was their source for pretty much everything,” says Kristoff. “And when the bison started disappearing, the people started disappearing.”   

That led to some very dark times. But now the bison are back at Wanuskewin, and Kristoff has already incorporated them into gallery programming through a series of four artist residencies.

“The residencies are based on the four petroglyphs,” says Kristoff. “When we found them, it was this incredible discovery and we knew we wanted to do something.

“We decided to bring in four artists from four different nations to dive into the importance of the number four,” she adds. “It’s kind of everywhere: the four directions, the four seasons, the four colours, and now we have these four petroglyphs.”

The bison are part of the residency too, says Kristoff. The artists can walk the land to see them, plus meet with elders and talk to the team that’s caring for the herd.

The four artists are Adrian Stimson (Blackfoot), Wally Dion (Cree), Lori Blondeau (Cree/Saulteaux/Métis) and Leah Marie Dorion (Métis). And the plan is to have a group exhibition to showcase their new work in September.

“We don’t know what the artists are creating yet,” says Kristoff. “They come to the site and are here for two weeks, which is basically a research phase. They can get photos, be physically on the land, and get inspiration from the land.”