As Suncor moves forward with plans to become the operator of the Syncrude Joint Venture by the end of 2021, it’s unlikely the change will impact the Beaver Creek Wood Bison Ranch. The ranch, which is a joint project between Syncrude and the Fort McKay First Nation, has been in operation as a reclamation project since 1993. Last week Syncrude announced that over 50 calves were born during the spring calving season, with potentially more on the way.
“[The ranch] is still very important in terms of our roots,” said Syncrude spokesperson Will Gibson. “I haven’t heard of any plans contemplated in terms of change with the bison herd. I don’t think [the change in operation] will have an impact on that.” Located 40 kilometres north of Fort McMurray, onlookers can view the herd of approximately 300 wood bison from the Wood Bison Viewpoint, which is just off Highway 63. Thirty wood bison were initially moved from Elk Island National Park to an area now slightly larger than 4.5 square kilometres as part of the 1993 repatriation.
The ranch maintains on average 240 wood bison per year, excluding newborn calves, and manages the size of the herd through sales at auctions. During an annual October round-up the entire herd is brought in to tag new calves, conduct health checks, and provide annual vaccinations. COVID however has presented some challenges for annual operations.
“In the past, Elders usually select one or two bison for slaughter and the meat will be distributed amongst the Fort McKay community, but because of COVID that event has been put on hold,” said Gibson. Historically overhunting, industrial expansion and urban sprawl impacted the herd’s population across the prairies and prior to the repatriation wood bison had not been seen in Fort McMurray since the 1800s. The area, which was once an open-pit mine, was transformed through the Syncrude and Fort McKay First Nation partnership, and expanded during its 25th anniversary in 2018 with a new pasture area for the wood bison.
Perhaps the biggest test for the repatriation came during the wildfire of 2016. While people were evacuated from the region, the wood bison remained and were protected from the fires by surrounding water.
“We filled up their water troughs and the pasture where they sit is sort of behind our main settling basin,” said Gibson. “We were getting a lot of queries about the [health of the] bison, including from the United States, because they are a symbol of our community.”
This year’s calving is slightly down from the average of 100 born annually. While the calving season was slightly delayed this year there is an expectation that more are on the way. For Brad Ramstead, who has been managing the herd since 2005, the bison are a symbol for the region. “It’s always great to see new calves being born at the ranch every year,” said Ramstead, in a statement. “It’s an integral part of life here.”
Scott McLean, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Fort McMurray Today