First Nations celebrate bison birth at park

The arrival of a new bison calf at the Wanuskewin Heritage Park near Saskatoon has been treated as a special occasion

The first bison born on the First Nation ancestral land at Saskatoon’s Wanuskewin Heritage Park was welcomed on Earth Day, April 22.

The calf is active and adjusting well, said a park spokesperson.

Her arrival marks the first birth in the area since the species almost went extinct more than 150 years ago.

“This is very significant because this is the first baby born since the signing of Treaty Six in 1876, said Andrew McDonald, director of marketing and communications for Wanuskewin.

“This is a wonderful story about reconciliation and about resilience.”

The ancestral land at Wanuskewin near Saskatoon has been a gathering place for northern plains Indigenous peoples for more than 6,400 years.

The site’s rolling hills and deep coulees near the South Saskatchewan River was used by ancient peoples for habitation, spiritual ceremonies, trading, as well as hunting and gathering.

Bison, in particular, played a significant role in the culture and once numbered in the millions across North America.

Last year, as part of its efforts to revitalize the park, a small herd of purebred Plains bison was re-established on a section of land.

It was part of the $40 million Thundering Ahead Capital Campaign to acquire land to expand park boundaries, necessary for consideration as a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site.

“We aim to be the first in Saskatchewan’s history to be recognized on a global scale as being completely unique to the world. We feel strongly that there’s no better representation of northern plains Indigenous culture than at Wanuskewin,” said McDonald.

In December 2019, the park welcomed 11 genetically pure Plains bison — a mature bull with four pregnant females from Yellowstone National Park in Montana and six yearlings from Grasslands National Park in southern Saskatchewan.

Craig Thomas, the bison livestock manager at Wanuskewin, said it was important to re-establish the ancestral ties or bloodlines of bison that once roamed the Wanuskewin land.

“We did extensive work to do the DNA testing to make sure that they were genetically pure Plains bison. No crossbreeding went on,” said Thomas, who is also a bison producer with extensive experience in multi-species artificial insemination.

“The last time that those genetics would have come across the border would have been in the late 1800s when they just roamed across the Canadian-U.S. border.”

Added McDonald: “Those two herds have not seen each other in a century and a half.”

The Wanaskewin herd will be foraging on reseeded natural prairie grasses later this spring, but for the time being their diet is supplemented with hay, mineral, salt and oats.

Three more baby bison have since been born at the heritage park.

“This herd is a wonderful story to rally around for the entire province because it’s an uplifting story and a heartwarming story as well,” said McDonald.

The herd has also started to play a major role in restoring land back into balance. Besides being considered a spiritual animal, bison are a keystone species that creates habitat for many different prairie species, including plants.

As bison eat and roam, they help to replant natural prairie grasses and flowers, which promotes pollinator insects, a variety of birds and a host of animals.

“Just by virtue of the fact that bison are walking on the land at Wanuskewin, we’re reclaiming the endangered natural prairie grasslands,” he said.

“None of this happens without the bison being there. They are the essential building block of this whole circle of life.”

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