Return of the Bison
How lucky is it that Manitoba claimed the bison for its flag and provincial symbol?
Put it this way, if Canada didn’t already have an animal for its national symbol and a vote was held today and the shortlist came down to a beaver or a bison, who do you think would win?
A beaver is busy but a bison doesn’t take crap from anybody. All the banged up stock pens and sore backs of bison producers attest to that. It’s almost as if a “Don’t Bug Me” sign hangs on a lanyard around its neck.
Bill Lenton was certainly impressed.
In 1966, Lenton, who farmed near Miami, Manitoba, went down to the United States to purchase some horses. He came back with five bison. And so began the first modern bison ranch in Canada.
“He shouldn’t have been allowed to go to auction sales. He just continued to go down and bring back more,” said his daughter, Gail Reichert.
Lenton’s herd grew and grew, launching the bison industry in Canada. Lenton also founded the Manitoba and National Bison Association, and today there is a Bill Lenton Memorial Award given annually to a top bison producer in the nation. One bison producer called Lenton “the Godfather of Bison.”
“He believed in the animal and he believed in the meat product,” said Reichert of her father, who died in 2004.
An even better story that gets told is the time Lenton went to Denver, Colo., for one of the first ever bison auctions in North America. The story goes he outbid everyone and came back with all 18 bison. Who the heck was the Canadian guy buying up all our bison? Americans wondered. “He was known to do that,” said Reichert. “He would go to an auction sale and clean up.”
But bison are typically over-priced at the Denver auction, which attracts a lot of high-roller hobby farmers in the U.S., and her dad didn’t like to overpay. “So if the story is true, it would have had to be a very early auction before prices became more inflated.” Reichert said.
Today, there are bison farms across Canada, with the largest number in Alberta.
“It was a hard go for quite a few years” but the industry took off in the early 2000s, said Reichert, who ran the Manitoba Bison Association for 15 years.
Her dad fell in love with the animal, and his enthusiasm helped spread bison farming across the country. “He got a lot of guys started. A lot of breeding stock was started in his yard,” she said.
“One of his favourite sayings was we killed off all the bison and a train came in and we called it progress. Now trains are getting pulled out and the bison are coming back and we call it progress.”
Meaning? “It depends which side of the fence you’re on. When they were killing off all the bison and putting down tracks, it was a wonderful thing. Now it’s a wonderful thing the bison are coming back.”
WHAT A COMEBACK story in the last half century for bison.
Today, it’s horrifying that bison were almost made extinct 150 years ago. The last bison hunt in Manitoba was in 1874. The burly ruminants had gone from a population of 30 to 60 million who roamed from Alaska to the Gulf of Mexico, to barely a few thousand.
It’s a magnificent beast. The bison is the largest land mammal in North America. Bulls can weigh up to 2,000 pounds (one Manitoba farmer has raised one to 3,000 pounds) and calves are born big, too, dropping at 40 to 50 pounds. They have a kind of sad, hangdog posture because their heads droop and can’t be raised above their shoulders. Yet they are very agile for their weight and bulky physique, reaching running speeds of up to 55 km/h.
Indigenous people and Europeans alike depended on bison. It provided their food, clothing (like jackets, robes and bedding) and shelter (doors of huts were often a bison hide). The hides could be made into leather for shoes. Sinews made valuable thread. Skulls made good milking stools. Dried dung was used for making fire on the tree-challenged prairies. [i]
Most importantly, the survival of people from all walks of life—explorers, fur traders, voyageurs, hunters and settlers, Indigenous or European—depended on the food invented by Indigenous people: pemmican.
Pemmican, a Cree word, was everyone’s all-purpose sustenance. It was made from strips of bison flesh dried over a fire or by a hot sun. Berries were pounded into the meat and then encased in melted fat at a one-to-one ratio with the meat.
Edith Paterson, who wrote history articles for the Winnipeg Free Press in the 1960s, and splattered an inordinate amount of ink on the beloved bison, said pemmican, unique to the western plains of North America, “was one of the world’s most nutritious foods.”
There was probably no better place in North America to access it than the Red River Valley. It was the dominant food in these parts, probably as common to the diet as sandwiches today. Or maybe granola bars would be a better comparison: a quick, easy, highly nutritious, high-energy food in compact form. It was a ready-made meal. It could be eaten cooked or uncooked. The Scottish settlers even used a form of pemmican made into a gruel to replace their customary porridge.
“Prepared without spices or salt, it provided a perfectly balanced diet. There was no scurvy among those who lived on it,” wrote Paterson.
It would last for years if made properly—some claimed it would last decades—and was easily transported by exploration brigades in 80-pound bags made from bison hide. The contents were so dense that bags were little bigger than pillows.
Paterson quotes Gen. Sam Steele, a legendary member of the North-West Mounted Police, who passed himself off as an authority on pemmican, stating that it was best when made with bone marrow instead of melted fat. The best preparation for pemmican, Steele claimed, was something called ‘rubaboo’: stew with water and flour, and potatoes and wild onions, if available, cooked in a frying pan. One account said two pounds of pemmican would feed eight hungry voyageurs. It was even made into a plum pudding, by one early account, after the pemmican and various ingredients were boiled over a “buffalo chips” fire for two hours. That would be a pleasant discovery in a recipe book but where to find the dried bison dung?[ii]
The Northwest Council, which still ruled beyond postage-stamp Manitoba’s boundaries at the time, enacted a law in 1877 to protect the animals. The law forbid the act of driving bison into ravines, killing them for amusement or for just their tongues (a delicacy). Neither was any bison under two years of age to be killed. Many people ignored the law, but it may have already been too late anyway.
Double-barreled and repeater rifles also hastened the extinction, said a report out of Manitoba prepared for the Canadian government. The report claimed the last hunt on Canadian soil took place in July, 1888, in the Red Deer River valley in Alberta. Five bison were killed.[iii] Compare that to the tens of thousands that were killed on hunts decades earlier.
The bison “vanished like melting snow,” Paterson wrote. “They soon became little more than a memory on the prairies.”
The impact was severe, especially to Indigenous people, and the pressure to farm in this part of the world was elevated to emergency stage. “Soon districts where literally acres of hides had been stretched out to dry contained only mountains of bleaching bones,” Paterson wrote. The bones could be ground up for fertilizer and became the prairies’ biggest export in 1890. But there was a finite supply and even the bones were all gone by 1893.
Where did today’s bison come from? It turns out Manitoba had a central role in preventing the complete destruction of the species. The individual responsible was a former private in General Wolseley’s army that traveled west in 1870 to remove Louis Riel and reclaim control of Manitoba following the Red River Resistance.
The private, Charles Alloway, arrived from the east but decided to stay when the army decamped.
“It was back in 1873 that I conceived the idea that the day was dawning when the vast (bison) herds would be depleted,” Alloway was quoted saying in a newspaper interview, reprised by history columnist Paterson. “I had bought as many as 21,000 buffalo hides from a single brigade of Indian hunters, paying $3 for the average and $4 for the large ones. It didn’t take any higher mathematics to realize that this rate of killing them off couldn’t go on forever, especially as there were dozens of brigades out hunting at the time.”
So Alloway tagged along on a bison brigade with pal James McKay (a Métis trader and hunter, who served both on Riel’s and the succeeding provincial governments) with a plan to capture and protect at least a few animals before they were all gone. They come back with a cow and three calves.
Alloway and McKay added to their herd the following year, in 1874, hitching along with a hunting brigade, and returned with a heifer and a bull this time. “Thus we laid the foundation for our herd,” said Alloway.
By 1878, the only bison remaining within Manitoba’s borders was the herd of 13 kept by Alloway and McKay. In 1879, McKay died and Alloway went into the banking business with his brother, William, who later founded the Winnipeg Foundation. Alloway sold the bovine.
From this point on, you could almost draw up a family tree to follow the path of those first bison. Alloway sold the bison that year to Colonel Samuel Bedson, warden of the Stony Mountain Penitentiary, for $1,000, who kept them in a pasture near the jail. The herd swelled to 125 bison within a decade. Bedson then turned over part of the herd to Donald Smith (he’d borrowed from Smith to buy the bison in the first place), the man for whom three Winnipeg streets are today named: Smith and Donald Street downtown, and Strathcona Street near Polo Park Shopping Centre. Smith eventually gave his herd to the City of Winnipeg, which placed them at the Assiniboine Park Zoo when it opened in 1904. (The zoo’s bison today are not from their lineage, however.)
The rest of Bedson’s herd, just under a hundred animals, was sold to a Texas rancher who went by the name “Buffalo Jones,” and who owned a small number of bison already.
Jones dreamed of establishing a game preserve where wealthy patrons could mount horses and shoot wildlife, like the practice that led to the bison’s extinction in the first place. Unfortunately for Jones, but fortunately for the bison, they became sickly because they couldn’t take the Texas heat or the ticks, so Jones flipped them to a pair of Montana ranchers, Charles Allard, a French Canadian, and Michael Pablo, a Mexican, who already had a few bison.
By 1906, the herd totaled over 700, but Allard and Pablo were ordered to sell them off because the U.S. government was increasing the settlement of Montana. The U.S. government wasn’t interested in the animals but the Canadian government was and bought every one of them for $245 per head. It took three years to transfer the animals. The bison were moved to several parks in Alberta including Banff National Park, Buffalo National Park (closed in 1940) in northeastern Alberta, the Northwest Territories and Elk Island National Park near Edmonton. Their preservation was then overseen by the Government of Canada in one of the great species recovery programs in the world.[iv]
The bison from Elk Island have been used to provide bison as domestic livestock on farms across Canada and the United States. Today, there are about 300,000 bison on farms in North America: 120,000 bison on about 1,000 Canadian farms in the 2016 census—the number of animals having tripled since 1996; and 184,000 on farms south of the border, as recorded in a 2017 U.S. Department of Agriculture census.
As well, refuges for non-livestock bison have sprung up in many places, including at Riding Mountain National Park and Fort Whyte Alive interpretive centre in Manitoba. Manitoba Conservation and Climate oversees a successful release of bison into the wild at Chitek Lake in Manitoba’s Northern Interlake, where the herd has swelled to nearly 300. Several Manitoba First Nations house bison on their reserves, including Sioux Valley First Nation, which had a herd of about 60, including seven white bison, in 2020.
There have also been bison releases in Yellowstone National Park in the United States, and in Europe in places like the Netherlands and Poland. A release of the European bison is planned for the West Blean Wood, near Canterbury, England, in 2022. The breed of bison native to Great Britain, the Steppe bison, went extinct about 10,000 years ago.
ONE OF THE farmers who got into bison farming early was Lorne Miller of Binscarth, south of Russell. Miller was looking around for a semi-retirement project when he met Lenton. He bought five bison cows and one bull off Lenton, and the two formed a mutual admiration society and became lifelong friends.
That was 1988. Bison ranching was still in its very nascent stages. “Our neighbours thought I was crazy,” said Lorne.
Maybe he was. He removed all doubt a year later when he bought 20 more. Soon he had 50. When his son, Nolan, graduated from high school in 1992, Lorne’s retirement project was starting to turn into full-time employment again with nearly 100 head of bison.
“Even just to look at them, there’s something about them,” Lorne said. “You get hooked on it after a while.”
He found bison were low maintenance compared to cattle, and more intelligent. “We find bison are a lot smarter, like at finding water, and they seem to remember a lot better where things are. If you move a herd once from one pasture to another, they remember right away where to go the next time,” said Lorne.
They’re also larger. One of Lorne’s bulls tipped the scale at almost 3,000 pounds.
The bison also piqued youngest son Nolan’s interest in farming. Nolan bought 16 head in 1993, the year after graduating from high school. “We used to sell a lot of meat back then right off the farm,” Nolan recalled.
Today, Nolan has taken over the operation but still says “we” a lot when talking about the farm, and explained the reason is his dad, now in his 80s, helps out. “He still likes to tell me what I’m doing wrong once in a while,” he said, smiling—at least he said it as if he was smiling over the phone.
Nolan learned quickly you can’t force the bison to do anything. You’ve got to make it so the animal wants to do what you want them to do. For example, if his bison see the gate open a smidgen, they’ll bolt for it like Manitobans to the airport gate to Las Vegas in January. “They’re always looking for a way out,” he said.
So he does things like leave the gate open a bit to make them think they have access to better feed and they bolt, like in a prison break, to where he wants them to go. “Once you know how the animal thinks, you build your facility to make them want to go through it, rather than trying to force them to go through.”
And when one of them bolts, look out. “When the first one goes, get out of the way because they’re all going full tilt.”
Bison are very sociable creatures with one another. A bison will practically die of loneliness if it’s not with the herd. But that sociability is ambiguous, too. Bison keep strict boundaries with each other and will turn ornery if another bison stands too close. The two-metre distance the public is asked to keep during the COVID-19 pandemic is just the perfect separation bison like to keep from each other all the time. “As soon as you put them in a tight area, they start to go at each other,” Nolan said.
So the trough system in cattle feedlots would never work with bison. A scrap would break out every time a bison tried to cram to within two metres of another. “You’d need a trough a half-mile long to get them to eat at the same time,” Nolan said.
They sort who eats first and other decisions among a herd by a pecking order, with the largest one usually leading the herd but who is also regularly challenged.
They’re still wild animals, after all, and you have to respect that. That’s why Nolan can run up a fence like a rodeo clown: he’s had a lot of practice at it. “Just make sure you can get to the fence faster than they can get to you,” he said.
An advantage to bison is they are hardy animals. Pneumonia is a non-issue and even vaccinations are minimal. Nolan runs about 1,200 head and gets one or two sick in a year at most. When that happens, it’s usually from a mineral deficiency.
“They don’t get them all needled when they come into feedlots,” he said. Antibiotics are used only when necessary, and in those cases the animal is processed separately. That’s important because there’s a high demand in the sector’s customer base for “never ever” meat, as in meat that has “never ever” had antibiotics or hormones. Animals treated with antibiotics, even if it’s a year or two earlier, are processed and marketed separately.
Disadvantages are the pace of weight gain in bison is considerably slower, and the meat is produced on a much smaller scale than other livestock, which means the cost at the supermarket is considerably more. And while bison require less management, they usually need better fencing and other facilities.
Out of about 120,000 bison farmed in Canada as of 2016, about 14,000 are held in Manitoba by 86 producers. Alberta led the way in 2020 with 55,000 animals, and Saskatchewan 40,000. Manitoba had the largest average herd size by a significant margin at 163 animals, 30 more than Saskatchewan, and larger herd sizes have been the trend historically for the province.
The market for bison has been strong and steadily rising for the past eight or nine years, Nolan said. It took a marked hit during the COVID-19 pandemic as restaurants are the major market and restaurants closed across North America. Only a small percentage of bison goes into supermarkets but that is changing, and there is good reason to be optimistic the market will continue to grow.
Bison producers like Nolan who sell their animals to American buyers fared better in the pandemic. Nolan, 46, president of the Manitoba Bison Association, made a wise decision in the mid-1990s to join with a group of 10 farmers and invest in a kill plant in North Dakota. The bison producers bought shares and established the facility and have sold most of their animals there ever since. It’s set to undergo a $5 million expansion.
It’s called North American Bison, and it’s in the small town of New Rockford, south of Devil’s Lake, North Dakota. Nolan ships about 600 bison a year to the plant.
Bison meat is edging its way into retail stores. Some U.S. Costco stores carry it, particularly on the Eastern Seaboard, and it’s also in U.S. chain stores like Fry’s Food and Trader Joe’s. In Canada, a company called Noble Premium Bison in Calgary has started placing bison in some Safeways in Alberta and Saskatchewan.
In 2020, there were over 1,300 head of bison processed in Manitoba facilities including True North Foods, and the province boasts nine provincially inspected plants. Bison meat and meat products are sold in many specialty meat stores in Manitoba.
[i] Tales of Early Manitoba from the Winnipeg Free Press, by Edith Paterson, 1970, Winnipeg Free Press.