This Land Was Built for Bison
A former rancher uses his experience in low-stress cattle handling to manage bison herds in Canada’s Grasslands National Park
Back when Don Gillespie’s mother, Norah, was growing up on the family ranch in the mixed-grass prairie of southwestern Saskatchewan in west-central Canada there were few roads and fewer vehicles. Ranch work was done with horses and fence pastures were scarce. These prairies once held tens of thousands of bison but after European contact the bison were hunted to near extinction and cattle took over as the large grazer in the ecosystem.
Photo by Marshal Drummond
Succeeding as a rancher on the large open prairies took patience and skill, especially when herding cattle. Norah discovered that if one was quiet in gesture and voice, a person could move large numbers of cattle with a small number of people and fewer problems. “The first guy to holler had to go to the house," Gillespie says, recalling his mother’s insistence on using low-stress animal handling techniques. "The only way you can handle livestock in big pastures is slow. You have to keep the energy level down, if you don’t, you are running the weight off the cattle.”
Gillespie learned from his mother to work with the landscape and took over the family ranch when his parents retired, carrying on the work of previous generations.
"My family's ranch had been in my family for a hundred years," says Gillespie, whose deeply crinkled eyes hint at a life spent living and laughing on the land. "My wife and I had two daughters. One wanted to work in finance and found a good job at a bank in the city. Our other daughter loved the land and ranching but she was killed in 2008." Gillespie paused, as if remembering happier times. "With no one to leave the land too," he continued, "it made sense to make it part of Grasslands National Park."
In 2008 he sold and the family’s 32 square miles of land became part of Grasslands National Park. One of the few remaining natural grasslands in North America, the park contains over 70 different species of grass and more than 50 wildflower species. It is also home to several at-risk species, including the burrowing owl and black-tailed prairie dog.
"It's bittersweet," Gillespie says about being the last Gillespie to live on the land. "Grasslands National Park has called this part of the park North and South Gillespie. It will be that way forever. That is a legacy to leave for my family.”
Gillespie now works at Grasslands National Park as a Western Heritage Program Coordinator and has taken his mother's lessons into his work with bison.
The park is one of Canada’s best bison habitats. From a seed herd of 71 animals in 2005 the bison population here has grown quickly, reproducing at almost 30 percent each year for the past five years.
The park's current population of several hundred bison graze the plains as their ancestors did and perform an important role in grassland health. Prairies need disruption and bison provide that, grazing year-round and creating open areas for insects and grassland-nesting birds.
Unlike ancient times though, the bison are usually fenced in. But in 2013 after deep snow covered a fence, several bulls walked out of the park. Trying to gather the bison for transport back to the park, Parks Canada staff erected a temporary corral but the bison refused to cooperate. With limited ways to return the bison, Gillespie offered to walk the animals back to the park using the technique taught to him by his mother.
Relying on his knowledge of bison behavior, he slowly moved his ATV into a position behind the bulls and slightly within their comfort zone and waited. And waited some more. "You need to throw away your watch when you’re moving bison," recalled Gillespie on the patience required to keep huge animals relaxed and moving forward.
Gillespie knew that if he gently put pressure on the bison they would move away from him and towards the park. “My mother said if you let them get away long enough they will get away right where you want them to go!” he chuckles.
Once they realized that Gillespie wasn't leaving his position, the bison started walking towards the park. "I walked them 9 miles, through four gates and through two creeks, one of which they had to swim," he says. It took two days, but his effort proved that bison aren't the dangerous, unpredictable creatures as portrayed in old westerns. By using the same techniques Norah had mastered to move cattle across these prairies, Gillespie returned the small herd to the park with no injuries.
Gillespie, however, declines to accept the title of buffalo whisperer. “I’d accept animal friendly,” he says of his skill to walk among animals.
Danielle Grant, projects communication officer at Grasslands National Park, says the park is committed to low-stress animal handling, “Pressure release is another term used for this kind of handling. We have also used this technique while baiting and gathering [bison] for handling, to ingrain a migratory pattern within the herd. In 2015 Ryan Hayes (bison program coordinator) and Gillespie trailed approximately 70 bison for eight miles.”
The park’s bison handling facility, used for animal care and separating surplus animals, which the park sells, was designed to help the animals stay calm. "When a bison feels threatened, its natural escape [instinct makes it] run back the way it came," explains Gillespie. So chutes and corridors wind back on themselves allowing bison to feel they are going the way they want to go. At the end of their walk they see daylight and within a few minutes are back on the range. “The goal when handling bison at Grasslands National Park is to cause minimal stress on the animal as well as ensure the safety of our handling staff,” Grant says.
The return of bison to southwest Saskatchewan has also revived local communities through tourism and jobs. The park has become an important employer. The park, Grant says, “offers challenging and unique opportunities to contribute to the Parks Canada mandate in the field.“
Word about this rare prairie ecosystem is spreading among travellers and park visitation is growing. In 2016, more than 13,000 people found their way down the bumpy road to the park and Val Marie — the nearest town — where locals have the opening hours of restaurants memorized, and the only gas you can buy is from a self-serve tank.
Tourists set up camp at Frenchman Valley or Rock Creek campgrounds in the park or bunk at nearby inns while they explore the place dubbed the “quietest North American prairie” by acoustic ecologist, Gordon Hempton. Fences keep bison from wandering through campsites but sunrise sometimes reveals larges bulls munching only a few hundred yards from people enjoying their morning coffee and the gold and yellow hues of a prairie sunrise.
Gillespie sees the bison and tourism as part of a bigger cycle. “Before there were bison. Then the bison were removed and the people came and the railway came. Now the railway has gone, the people are leaving, and the bison are coming back. It’s a circle,” he concludes.
Norah Gillespie gazed at a landscape dotted with cattle instead of bison. She might not have anticipated that her ranch would one day be part of a national park or that her ranching techniques would be used to manage bison herds. But she understood success comes from working with, not struggling against, geography.