Lands and Environment

At home on the frozen range: Reintroduced Aishihik bison herd thrives in Yukon

On a cold winter morning, the big bison goes forward looking for food.

The Aishihik Wood Bison Herd is, “biologically speaking, doing very well,” says Tom Jung, senior wildlife biologist with Environment Yukon. One-hundred and seventy animals were reintroduced to the Haines Junction, Yukon area through a federally supported project between between 1988 and 1992. Since then, the population has expanded to 1,500 animals, one of the largest populations of wild bison in North America.

“The population is in a growth phase,” says Jung, “which is expected in new ungulate populations. They will eventually taper off growth and stabilize…Bison have a long history in this part of the world – they were here (in the south west Yukon) alongside woolly mammoths.”

Bison once ranged all across North America, from the Great Lakes to the Pacific Ocean, as far south as New Mexico and as far North as Old Crow in the Yukon. While overhunting and environmental changes decimated populations in much of North America to near total-extinction, bison went extinct in the Haines Junction area earlier than in other areas, says Jung, about 350 years ago. Why they went extinct in the southwest Yukon – populations persisted in the south east until the 1930s – is uncertain; but several theories – habitat loss, disease, hunting pressures – abound. Jung says he personally thinks it was probably a combination of factors.

“A lot of this range used to be grassland,” he says. “It seems unlikely to me that bison could be hunted out (to extinction) in the arboreal forest, so maybe a combination of hunting, losing their habitat, being squished into smaller areas (as grasslands declined)…but we really don’t know for sure.”

“People are able to use this population as a food source. We have a population of moose and caribou that can’t sustain the demand for hunting in this area; where there are sometimes hunting closures on these other animal populations, the bison can sustain harvest.”

The reintroduction was part of a series of conservation projects that began in the 1970s and ’80s as wildlife management rose to prominence as a national issue. During this time, serious conservation efforts were put into place, focusing on severely endangered animals like the wood bison, whooping crane, and peregrine falcon. Preserving them became a matter of “national heritage,” says Jung.

“To liken it to hockey,” Jung adds with a laugh, “the bison are one of the ‘original six’ endangered species in Canada.”

Of the introduced animals, 141 came directly from stock from Elk Island National Park. The remaining animals were from zoos and private facilities, although all animals can trace their lineage back to the Elk Island Herd, as those animals are known to be genetically pure; that is, not mixed with their smaller cousins, the plains bison, and free of disease, says Jung.

While the animals have been very successful in the sense of their survival, the overall project has been “socially and culturally, a mixed message,” says Jung. This is in part because the introduction project was undertaken from a perspective that really only considered the bison, and not what impact they might have on the land or animals that already occupied the Haines Junction area. Furthermore, there was no discussion or consultation with the First Nations people who live there, specially the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations (CAFN) on whose traditional territory the bison now roam.

“They didn’t ask the First Nation people if they even wanted the bison,” Jung says, “and didn’t really consider the broader environmental impact the bison might have…They also didn’t think that the land could support as many bison as it now does.”

Socially speaking, Jung says, people in the area weren’t used to bison, which is the largest land mammal in North America. That problem was compounded because the bison – having been raised from captive stock – were used to people.

“Bison are a big presence on the landscape and people are understandably nervous around them…Bison were coming up to remote cabins and rubbing against buildings, knocking over grave markers in remote communities, causing conflict between them and First Nations,” Jung notes.

As anyone who has encountered bison along the Alaska Highway between Watson Lake, Yukon and the Liard Hot Springs can attest, bison really don’t seem very alarmed by the presence of people – or cars – and can be a danger on highways, especially at night. This second population of bison, also introduced and inhabiting the fringe area between the south east Yukon and British Columbia, is managed by British Columbia and is a separate entity from the Aishihik Herd, which is managed by Environment Yukon. This lack of skittishness stems both from habituation and from the distinct nature of the bison themselves.

“They’re used to being on top of the heap,” says Jung. “They don’t care about people…It’s actually one thing that I like about bison. They have attitude.”

Jung notes that the bison seen on the highway in the southeast are not hunted. The southwest population is now open to hunting, which has increased the animals’ suspicion of people in the Aishihik Herd.

“They now recognize us as predators,” he says.

First Nations people have expressed concerns about the impact of bison on animals such as moose and caribou, which are part of their traditional diet and cultural practices. Jung says it is part of the project’s responsibility to address those concerns, and that “pretty active research” is being under taken in the field on this topic. So far, he says, there is no evidence that bison populations compete with or impact these species negatively, largely because of the way these animals “partition their resources.”

“These animals have different diets. Moose are browsers, caribou have an intermediate mixed diet, and bison are grazers dining in pockets of remaining grassland. The bison seem to do their thing, and moose and caribou do their own things…There is, interestingly, some overlap in the diets of bison and mountain sheep, but these species make very different habitat choices,” he explains. “To bring it back to the Pleistocene, bison were once part of this large mammal community for thousands of years and have evolved together (with moose and caribou).”

While moose and caribou populations do not seem to be affected, there is currently research looking into whether or not the bison are impacting a much smaller mammal, the muskrat. Bison have been noted by trappers in the area to be eating muskrat ‘push-ups’ over the winter. Push-ups are a muskrat’s store of winter food held under the ice; they also keep the winter ice open so that the muskrat can surface and breathe. These food stores are nutritionally dense and attractive to many animals, apparently including bison. When they are eaten or otherwise destroyed, a muskrat population on a small lake can die out in a single winter, Jung explains. It is currently unknown how much impact the bison themselves are actually having on muskrat populations.

A 2016 paper co-authored by the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations entitled Impacts of reintroduced bison on first nations people in Yukon, Canada: Finding common ground through participatory research and social learning notes that, “The Aishihik herd had grown continually since establishment, despite significant population control efforts through hunting,” and that while there did not appear to be immediate resource conflict between the bison and the moose and caribou that are culturally significant to the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations, “both species were reported to have moved from specific places where people were accustomed to seeing and hunting them in the past. Consequently some study participants reported increased effort and reduced hunting success for these species. This is particularly noticeable for elders who travel less now, and are more likely to hunt only opportunistically.”

Additionally, the paper noted that bison now inhabit berry-picking areas. Berry picking, the report notes, is “an important late-summer subsistence activity for CAFN members that brings together community members—especially women—and their families,” and bison are “trampling and defecating on berry patches, rendering the berries unfit to eat,” forcing people to change their harvesting grounds.

The paper also noted the same behaviours Jung mentioned regarding bison impacting muskrat populations, and cited additional concerns about damage to medicinal plants and traplines, along with “direct bison-to-human conflict.”

Despite these issues, the paper noted that the value of bison as a food source was a benefit – albeit the only benefit – to the community.

“Bison meat is shared between hunters, then among their immediate and extended families, and finally to community members at large; much as moose and other large animals are,” the paper says. This benefit is, however, unequally shared, as elders in the community “tend to dislike the taste of bison meat.”

As for the size of the herd, which it states as a concern, “The Aishihik bison herd has a socially-determined size limit…A strong and consistently-expressed need is to keep the bison population below a threshold where they may impact the viability of other locally valued species.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum, that of predation, the impact bison have had as a food source for predators seems to have been limited, Jung says. It wasn’t until 2008 that Environment Yukon first began seeing evidence of predator-prey interaction between bison and wolves, for example, and it is still unknown how far this relationship extends, and whether or not wolves are specifically preying on bison or only taking wounded or sick animals when the opportunity arises. There is no current evidence of the predation of bison by grizzly bears.

“Bison are the most formidable prey available to predators in North America and there are lots of other small, easier food sources available for predators. It took wolves a while to become accustomed to hunting bison again, but we do see some limited predation now.”

Overall, Jung notes that “there may be evidence that bison are key to keeping the small grassland areas (where they live) alive by grazing them and keeping aspen at bay,” as their cousins, the plains bison, had a similar environmental role on the Prairies.

Perhaps most indicative of the success of the project is that the Aishihik Herd is stable enough to be hunted.

“People are able to use this population as a food source. We have a population of moose and caribou that can’t sustain the demand for hunting in this area; where there are sometimes hunting closures on these other animal populations, the bison can sustain harvest,”Jung says.

The relationship between hunter and prey is actually a very important one, socially and culturally, Jung says, providing not only “food in the freezer,” but also going “a long way to bring bison back into the culture of the people” who live in the area. Hunters also gain respect for bison, he says.

“Bison are a very intelligent animal. You’ve really got to work for it if you want one, and they’re tough; you can walk for days without seeing one, you can shoot and they might not go down with a shot that would have taken down a caribou. Hunters really gain a lot of respect for this animal.”

The ability to hunt these animals has also opened up community opportunities. There is a school program available for Grade 7 students, which allows them to plan and participate in a community hunt, which gets them out on the land in winter.

“I really can’t over-emphasize the value of the experience (of hunting bison). People get out on the land in a way they might not otherwise,” Jung says.

The bison hunting season runs from September to March 31.

Aside from his interest in bison professionally, Jung says he cares for the animals personally.

“What I really love about the bison,” says Tom Jung, senior wildlife biologist for Environment Yukon, “is their ability to persist – which is ironic, when you think about it, because they’ve previously gone extinct in their current habitat… I’m amazed at how they make their living in the Yukon landscape.”◉

For more information on bison management and on the bison hunt, visit http://www.env.gov.yk.ca/hunting-fishing-trapping/bisonhunt.php


Editor’s note: The Champagne and Aishihik First Nations were asked to comment directly on the currently state of the bison on their traditional territory, but were unavailable to speak on the subject.

Photo credit: istockphoto/JackVandenHeuvel 

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