Bison ranch keeps tabs on health of species at risk

The Wigness family knows all about the important relationships between their bison and species at risk.

They’ve been ranching southwest of Swift Current, Sask., for more than 20 years and are currently running about 200 cows on 3,600 acres.

Merek Wigness said a check last summer identified at least seven different species co-existing with the bison, including burrowing owls, short-eared owls, and loggerhead shrikes.

“The conservation aspect of bison ranching is very strong,” he said.

There are many ties between the big beasts and birds, such as the use of bison wool in nests.

“Burrowing owls pick it up like it’s gold,” Wigness said, adding that nests that contain bison wool have a higher hatching rate.

And there are other benefits, such as the way bison graze around riparian areas.

“Cattle tend to hang out around water,” he said. “Bison don’t.”

Wigness said raising bison on native pasture creates the ecosystems that many species at risk need.

That’s why he was happy to recently hang several signs acknowledging the family’s participation in some of Nature Saskatchewan’s voluntary stewardship programs.

They include Shrubs for Shrikes, Operation Burrowing Owl and Stewards of Saskatchewan.

Nature Saskatchewan also has Plovers on Shore and Rare Plant Rescue programs.

Kaytlyn Burrows, habitat stewardship co-ordinator, said the programs are voluntary and are meant to help monitor populations of species at risk.

About 850 participants are involved in all five.

Burrows acknowledged that not all landowners want others to know that they have certain species on their land. They don’t have to put the signs up exactly where the species are, but Wigness said he doesn’t anticipate problems.

“We thought about it a little bit,” he said. “We’re not next to highways and I don’t think we’ve ever had someone wander in.”

Burrows said landowner participants are asked to help Nature Saskatchewan keep track of populations. Some people are more comfortable working with a non-governmental organization, she added.

“We only share land location, with permission, to the Conservation Data Centre,” Burrows said. “We’re very hands off and rely on the landowners to tell us if species are there.”

Bison ranches are ideal locations because they re-create natural systems.

Burrowing owls, for example, like short grass around their burrows and hunt in the medium and taller grass left behind to find mice and insects.

Sightings of the species are beginning to come in this spring, Burrows said.

Operation Burrowing Owl has 358 participants, but the 2017 census reported just 25 pairs of birds.

“It’s sort of a sad number to say out loud,” she said, “but we don’t actually know how many there are.”

Barn swallows and other insectivore birds are now considered as threatened, and monarch butterflies are of special concern.

The American badger is also listed as a species of special concern. Burrows said people see badgers as pests but burrowing owls often use their holes for homes.

For more information on Nature Saskatchewan programs, go to naturesask.ca.

Wigness Bison is at wignessbison.com.

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