Buffalo in Kalyna Country

When the Buffalo roamed Kalyna Country….

A familiar sight while driving on Highway 16 east of Edmonton are the buffalo that often graze along the fences of Elk Island National Park. Currently home to some 400 wood buffalo and 600 of their prairie cousins, the National Park is an excellent place to see these magnificent animals that once roamed the interior plains in vast herds numbering in the thousands and even tens of thousands.

Formally known as bison, this shaggy member of the cattle family (Bovidae) is said to have been called “buffalo” by the early settlers of West, who thought they were reminiscent of water buffalo. A European species of the bison—still found in Poland, Ukraine and European Russia—is known as the wisent, while the two sub-species in North America are identified as prairie (bison bison) and wood (bison athabascae) bison. The latter is most easily distinguished from the former by its greater height and more pronounced hump, and by the fact that its curved horns tend to protrude straight up from the head. The prairie, or plains bison, as it is commonly referred to, has horns that are typically set further apart while boasting a heavy beard and legs that have hair down their front (called “chaps”). Both species have the capes that are characteristic of bison, but the robe on the wood buffalo is shorter, darker, and less extensive. Wood bison also traditionally lived in smaller groups, were well-known to be more skittish, and seem to have lacked major migratory movements. At Elk Island the two species are kept on opposite sides of the Yellowhead Highway so as to prevent inter-breeding and a blurring of their distinctive traits. Look for the wood bison in the south range, and the prairie bison in the north.

Plains bison reach an average weight of 730 kgs, and wood bison a formidable 840 kgs, making the buffalo the largest land mammal indigenous to the continent. Whereas it takes six to eight years for bulls to attain their maximum size, cows are fully-grown at approximately four years. Bison cows can reproduce from the age of three, and have calves for more than twenty years if conditions are right. That is because cows will not reproduce if there is insufficient food to sustain their offspring.

For millennia, the buffalo played a central role in the lives of many Native tribes inhabiting a large part of the North American continent. Because they were an important source of meat rich in protein; provided skins used for clothing, bedding and shelter; and had horns and bones that could be made into tools and utensils, they were critical to the survival of the nomadic bands that followed them. Not surprisingly, the buffalo was revered by Aboriginal peoples, and the focus of many rituals practised by the Plains Indians of Canada and the United States. In Kalyna Country, the Ribstones southwest of Viking bear eloquent testimony to the deep respect that First Nations tribes had for bison, which provided them with not only meat, but hides and bones that were used to make tools and accessories. The grouping of stones carved with what appear to be representations of the ribcages of bison are believed to have been place where Native hunters would come to pray before a hunt or to thank the Creator for its success. From the vantage point of the Ribstones site, it is easy to imagine those who gathered there surveying the surrounding countryside for the herd that had been chosen to provide their prey.

It is estimated that in 1800 the population of the prairie bison, whose habitat was always much more extensive than that of the northern-dwelling wood buffalo, was 50-60 million. However, after the introduction of horses and guns, combined with a rapidly expanding cash economy and the influx of settlers needing land and food, the stocks of buffalo plummeted dramatically. In particular, overhunting by professional buffalo hunters (among them the famed “Buffalo Bill” Cody) played an especially large role in decimating the herds, with disastrous consequences for the Aboriginal peoples who depended upon the buffalo for survival. By 1885, the plains bison was virtually extinct except for a small herd that was protected within Yellowstone National Park, and by 1891, fewer than 300 wood bison remained. For decades, both species tottered on the edge of extinction, until careful conservation measures gradually restored their numbers to the point where each could be removed from the endangered list in Canada.

Kalyna Country is an integral part of the rangelands that were the historic domain of the plains bison. Evidence of the free-roaming buffalo’s legacy can be found throughout east central Alberta, where they were harvested in the early 18th century by Native and Métis hunters to supply fresh meat and pemmican to fur trading posts along the North Saskatchewan River. A Native buffalo jump is thought to have existed near Birch Lake, southeast of Innisfree, and the hamlet of Hairy Hill acquired its colourful name because it was a place that buffalo liked to wallow at springtime to help shed the excess hair grown during the winter. Turn-of-the-century homesteaders in the area still found traces of scraped-off hair on the hillside north of the present-day town site, and even now you can faintly discern the depressions created by the wallowing process.

Yet another notable reference to the time when the Buffalo roamed Kalyna Country can be found in an article titled “A Day with the Buffalo Hunters”, the text of which was republished in the Winter 1982 edition of Alberta History. Written by Charles N. Bell, who came West in 1870 with the Wolsley expedition, it describes a buffalo hunt that the author participated in while preparing to winter over at Saddle Lake.  As related by Bell, who later became a well known historian and the president of the Historical and Scientific Society of Manitoba:

About ten o’clock on the morning of the 17th October 1872, I arrived at the deserted Roman Catholic mission of St. Paul, on the north bank of the North Saskatchewan River, accompanied by five Metis, or half-breeds, four of whom were of French Cree extraction, and the other of English and Cree… The party, including myself, a Canadian lad of eighteen, were bound for the great plains in search of buffalo, and we were desirous of killing a sufficient number to furnish us with meat for the approaching winter.

Our wintering post was established at Saddle Lake (Saw-gi-ah-gun As-pap-owin), twelve miles north of the Saskatchewan River, and about ninety mile north-west of Fort Pitt. We had with us fourteen Red River carts and eighteen horses. Four of the latter were buffalo runners, noted for their speed and endurance in the chase, as well as for keenness of vision in detecting that particular bane of a buffalo runner’s life—a badger hole covered by a the rank growth of prairie grass.

Bell goes on to relate how the hunters forged the North Saskatchewan by simply removing the wheels from their wooden carts to transform them into rafts, and how they made makeshift canoes out of the buffalo hides that had served as cart covers. The hunting party eventually travelled south to the Hand Hills area, east of Drumheller, killing the buffalo that they required for their winter needs. Bell’s fascinating account, which provides other details about how the hunters ate pemmican served in variety of ways and erected a tipi dressed in buffalo skins, was originally published in the Chicago Current before being reprinted in the Toronto Mail on 30 October 1885.

Today, the buffalo have made a remarkable comeback in Kalyna Country, as they have in other parts of the Canadian Prairies and the American Midwest. Besides flourishing at sanctuaries like Elk Island National Park, the buffalo are also now the basis of a growing commercial bison industry. It is estimated that the total Canadian herd of plains bison is about 70,000 head, with about 80 percent of this figure consisting of buffalo being raised on approximately 400 ranches in Alberta. There are a number of bison operations within Kalyna Country, producing meat that graces the tables of some Edmonton’s best restaurants, and which can purchased at area markets and specialty shops. Several restaurants in ecomuseum communities likewise serve buffalo burgers and other bison dishes, which are becoming increasingly popular with consumers because of their great taste and low-cholesterol content.

Researched and written by Jars Balan