Agribition honours cultural, economic importance of buffalo

Bison wait to be sold at the Canadian Western Agribition in Regina on Nov. 29, 2022.  (Daniella Ponticelli/CBC - image credit)
Bison wait to be sold at the Canadian Western Agribition in Regina on Nov. 29, 2022. (Daniella Ponticelli/CBC - image credit)

Bison have long been part of Canadian Western Agribition, but this week the animals had an entire day dedicated to their importance.

The inaugural Bison Day kicked off Tuesday afternoon at the event's Stock Exchange with an Indigenous cultural showcase.

Elder Larry Oakes, from Neekaneet Cree First Nation in Saskatchewan, opened the event with a prayer and told CBC News he welcomes the initiative from Agribition.

"People who are raising the bison are doing a great service for everybody," Oakes said. "It's an industry, but the significance of that is actually seeing live buffalo."

Millions of buffalo — a traditional name for bison — once roamed free across North America, providing food, hides and spiritual significance.

Excessive hunting brought the animals to near extinction by about 1890, according to a Parks Canada report.  Conservation efforts began soon after, the report says, with the agency working to restore both conservation and cultural bison herds.

Oakes said he believes bison farming by Indigenous and non-Indigenous producers is helping repopulate.

"Probably we're not going to get to the millions and millions there used to be, but what we don't want is our culture and our spirituality and our language to disappear like that," he said.

"The buffalo is currently leading the way in this current time, with current products, current economies. Maybe that's how our culture comes back too."

Daniella Ponticelli/CBC
Daniella Ponticelli/CBC

The history of the buffalo is not lost on producer Robert Johnson, who stressed that the bison farmed today are the same as those that roamed thousands of years ago.

"We haven't altered with their genetics," he said. "It's the original keystone species that's been here since the end of the last ice age."

Johnson added that buffalo provide a blueprint for regenerative agriculture practices, an example being a return to the original grazing habits of bison.

"Just their hoof action and their impact on the environment is so important from an ecological standpoint," he said. "We want to make sure the land is healthy enough to pass on to future generations."

On the commercial side, Johnson said bison meat is enjoying a rise in popularity, adding that events like Bison Day help with educating the public.

"It's becoming more and more mainstream. We are seeing it a lot more in restaurants. Bison jerky is showing up in a lot more service stations," he said.

While attending Agribition earlier Tuesday, Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe said the province has a rich history with bison,  given the longevity of the buffalo and its significance for Indigenous people.

With that, he noted the current economic outlook for bison products is optimistic.

"If you look where we are today and into the future, bison is becoming a significant part of our livestock production," Moe said.

"Saskatchewan is in the middle of the North American bison industry, and I would say in the middle of the global bison industry."

Bison herds have been reintroduced, and are growing in numbers, across the Canadian Prairies over the last several years.

In 2023, 24 bison will be relocated to Batoche land in Saskatchewan as part of the Prairie Bison Reintroduction project, according to Parks Canada.