Published on: January 16, 2017 at 9:53 PM
WOOD BISON PROVE RESILIENT DURING FORT MCMURRAY WILDFIRE
The manager of the Beaver Creek Wood Bison Ranch knew transporting roughly 200 head of bison on short notice was not an option when the May wildfire forced the evacuation of Fort McMurray, shut down oil sands operations a few days later and threatened air quality throughout the region.
So Brad Ramstead did the next best thing to monitor the health of the herd and ensure they had food and water – he stayed prepared and ready to return to the ranch as soon as he could. It was right in the peak of calving season after all, and like any rancher, Brad didn’t want to be too far away. Not being able to properly care and check on these animals daily is a rancher’s worst nightmare.
Yet, despite the wildfire and the evacuation of the Syncrude site, the month of May saw 54 healthy calves welcomed to the Beaver Creek Wood Bison Ranch, which is co-managed by Syncrude and the Fort McKay First Nation. By the end of the calving season, 90 new animals were born, bringing the herd count to 280.
Syncrude received many questions from media and others about the status of the herd during the wildfire, but Brad was confident the animals would continue to thrive.
“The early days following the fire, people tried to get a grasp on what had just happened. It was an unbelievable reality that was really hard to comprehend and one did a lot of soul searching,” says Brad.
“Nobody really knew what was left or if we would even have a place to go home to. But there was still a family and a bison herd that needed to be looked after. That part was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do, and the other part that was so overwhelming is the extreme kindness and friendship that exploded from all over. My wife Carmen and I had call after call from all over Canada and the United States offering any form of help, from prayers, to trucking, to ranch hands, to a place to stay, whatever was needed. I actually had to get Carmen to send information out to several key contacts so they could relay it forward to the associations and all that were interested as I could not talk to everyone.”
Some community members had questions specifically about how smoke from the wildfires would impact the bison.
“The part that I have learned the most from being in the bison industry for nearly 15 years, is that this animal looks after itself and is a better keeper than most any other ranched or farmed animal. When a bison rancher is in need of help, the need or want to help from others is staggering.”
“Bison are used to a certain degree of smoke, they evolved with it and don’t have a problem with it,” explains Brad. “In some areas in Canada where biting flies and insects are really bad, ranchers have eased the pressure on their livestock by burning old straw or hay to create a smudge. Bison will migrate to the thick smoke and seem to enjoy the reprieve from the insects.”
The wildfire of 2016 will long be remembered for its devastating effect on this region and the people who call Wood Buffalo home. No doubt it will also be seen as the catalyst that brought a community closer together throughout the rebuild. We only have to look at the wood bison grazing on reclaimed land for inspiration.
“Ask any bison rancher and they’ll tell you that these animals always seem to amaze you in their resilience and ability to persevere through adverse conditions,” says Brad. “It gives you a real sense of pride to think that you are involved with family, friends and an entire community that could have only made it by working together. We got through the main event and continue moving forward by working together and supporting one another much the same way a bison herd lives each and every day.”