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The Plains Bison (also known as Buffalo) were common along the Battle River until about 1875. For thousands of years it was common to see huge herds of bison numbering in the tens of thousands across the North American plains. A total of 30 million bison is a conservative estimate of the total population. By the 1890’s that number had dwindled to less than 2,000 in all of North America. Gone was the connection between bison, Indigenous peoples and the land.
Today’s Plains Bison evolved during the last ice age and adapted to handle extremely cold winters. Their hides are effective insulators. Bison use their large heads, supported by a muscular hump, to plow aside the snow. This allows the bison to graze even in deep snow. They have a round hump on their backs, a full beard, bushy hair on their heads and hairy leg chaps. Plains Bison are 20% smaller than their “cousins” the Wood Bison. The Woods Bison are the largest North American mammal and lived further north in Alberta and into the Territories and Alaska.
Bison live in herds. The main herd is made up of cows, calves and immature bulls and led by matriarch cows. Calves are born in May to June and stay close to their mother for 2 to 3 years until maturity. For 3 to 4 months the calves colouring is an orangey red. It changes to darker brown about the time it is weaned. The bulls live alone or in smaller herds until mating season when the more dominant bulls join the cow/calf herds.
Bison herd - image from the Glenbow Museum
Indigenous peoples relied on bison as their most important source of food and other materials they needed for their survival. The bison was formidable to hunt with its size, speed and intelligence. A successful hunt and the subsequent processing required the knowledge and effort of the entire community. One bison could yield between 400 and 550 pounds of meat. The Indigenous peoples had a use for every part of the bison. Their hides were used as tipi coverings, robes and blankets, and their bones were carved into tools. Tipis were made by draping as many as 15 bison hides over a wooden frame.
For thousands of years hunting on foot didn’t deplete the bison herds. The introduction of horses and firearms in the nineteenth century changed that balance. The demand for bison products increased. Bison hides made wonderful machinery drive belts and pemmican was in demand to feed the fur traders. With horses and guns, a hunting party could kill many bison and take the saleable portions.
It has taken more than a century to bring bison back from near extinction. We can now see and learn more about both the Plains Bison and the Woods Bison at Elk Island National Park.
During the last ice age, most of Canada was covered by ice up to a kilometer thick. This period started about 75,000 years ago and lasted until about 10,000 years ago. Many scientists believe a 4,000-kilometer ice-free corridor east of the Rocky Mountains funneled the first peoples and bison that crossed the Bering Land Bridge that connected North America with Eurasia, into the heart of North America. The first archeologic evidence places humans in the Yukon about 16,000 to 18,000 years ago. By 10,000 years ago the giant Bison with their flaring horns became extinct.
The remaining bison were smaller (two-thirds the size of their predecessors) and had lost their flaring horns. With this change came the tendency to live in herds, leading to a shift to communal hunts by Indigenous peoples.
The economy of what is now Alberta’s Plains revolved around the bison for at least 10,000 years.
The Indigenous peoples living in Alberta in Prehistoric times were hunters and gatherers who moved up to fifty times a year. Their way of life and their inventiveness allowed them to thrive in a severe and changeable climate for thousands of years. They moved to intercept the bison while ensuring they had water, shelter and firewood. They used dogs and travois (poles joined by a frame) to carry their belongings.
Plains Bison at Elk Island National Park photo by Mary Tien.
Mary Tien - Camrose resident
The First Albertans - An Archaeological Search – By Gail Helgason
Elk Island National Park – Like Distant Thunder: Canada’s Bison Conservation Story