Brian Bachelder, one of two herd managers at CFB Wainwright, said that town is known as the bison capital of Canada.
“This is where the bison were saved from extinction,” said Bachelder.
“Every herd that is established in Canada came from here or Elk Island Park.
Bachelder said in 1907, the governor general at the time purchased a herd from Montana, which was said to be the last 700 remaining bison on the continent. They were transported by train for a temporary stay at Elk Island Park.
In 1909, they arrived in Wainwright once the new National Buffalo Park had been fenced.
The Plains herd at Elk Island started because of the ones that they couldn’t catch from the Montana herd – left behind as strays, they grew to establish their own herd.
The two types of bison are plains or wood, and when travelling on Highway 16 past Elk Island Park, you can spot plains bison on the north side of the road and wood bison on the south side of the road.
Buffalo National Park consisted of 160 square miles of land, and the bison flourished growing to birth approximately 40,000 bison over 30 years. With the large numbers, they were eating themselves out of house and home, and overgrazing brought disease so the animals were dispersed with the park closing in 1939.
In 1940, the Canadian Army took over the land as a military base. There were no bison at the park until 1980 when a commemorative herd was presented to the military establishment in honour of the province of Alberta’s 75th Anniversary.
The park was re-opened as the Bud Cotton Buffalo Paddock. Bachelder said that Bud had been the warden for a lot of years, and his grandson even made the entrance sign.
Since then, the herd has grown ten times over and have two quarters to roam. Along the paddock is a five-kilometre walking trail that is used daily, so spectators are able to enjoy them from a distance.
Approximately 14 years ago, during his service he thought it would be neat to get involved.
He now feeds them twice per week through the winter and said there is no looking after them like with cattle. They eat hay and other grains but are fiercely protective.
“You’re not going to walk into the corral with them – they are a fight or flight animal,” said Bachelder.
“I think they are a fascinating animal. There’s a lot of history in them. It’s nice to be around them, and to be able to see them in calving season.”
After a 25 year career in military communications, Bachelder retired but continues to look after the bison. He said it is just still fun and interesting, and a pretty cool part-time hobby.
Each year they have to reduce the herd size to keep it at a manageable number (currently around 40).
To do this they both sell to a local rancher, and butcher some of the animals. Some of the processed meat is sold to military members and civilian employees through a lottery draw.
“The meat is something different that they don’t get everywhere – it’s unique to this area,” said Bachelder.
Bison can live 15 – 20 years or more and most cows will calve one every year between April and October. They usually average 8 – 15 calves per year – calving themselves. Managers just keep an eye on the herd through the summer. They bring in a couple different bulls every year to integrate the blood lines, sourcing pure plains bison.
The bulls will reach approximately 2,000 lbs.
“They’re pretty hardy animals,” said Bachelder.
“In Canada they have to be, whether it is hot or cold.”