Earth Day: Wainwright’s heritage bison herd inspires Second Annual Bison Run

Bison cow and newborn calf.
Bison cow and newborn calf. Photo: courtesy Pixabay.com

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By Lynn Capuano, Army Public Affairs

Wainwright, Alberta — You can’t roller skate in a buffalo herd, according to the questionable wisdom of the late Texas country singer Roger Miller, but you could support Earth Day by running in the second annual Bison Run, if you’ve a mind to.

Canadian Forces Base/Area Support Unit Wainwright (CFB Wainwright) maintains a heritage herd of about 40 buffalo – more correctly known as plains bison – and is celebrating Earth Day 2018 on April 22 with a recreational run alongside the fenced-in herd.

The base, located 210 kilometres east of Edmonton, is the preferred training ground for the Army’s field force units based in Edmonton and is home to the Canadian Manoeuvre Training Centre and the 3rd Canadian Division Training Centre.

But that’s not all that goes on there.

Before the Department of National Defence (DND) took over the area in 1939 as a training base as the Second World War loomed, CFB Wainwright was known as Buffalo National Park.

The park was established in 1909 by the Canadian government as one of the earliest attempts at saving a species from extinction. It was a refuge for the plains bison, which once darkened the plains in astounding numbers: some of the massive herds on the move were reported to have been three kilometres wide and 40 kilometres deep. It is estimated that in the 1830s, the population of close to 40 million came within 1,000 animals of annihilation by 1900 due to unmanaged hunting and loss of their grassland food source to the building of railroads, farms, ranches, cities and towns.

When Alberta celebrated its 75th year as a province in 1980, bison were repatriated to CFB Wainwright in order to preserve their heritage and history associated with the base. At non-public expense, CFB Wainwright maintains the bison herd and pastures them in a protected part of the range and training area.

Warrant Officer (Retired) Brian Bachelder is the bison caretaker, with help from Sergeant (Retired) Rod Whiteside. WO (Retd) Bachelder has been involved for the past 12 years. When he was posted at Wainwright during his career, he volunteered to help look after them, learning on the job as he had no farming experience. “When the first guy left, I asked if I could help, and I have been the caretaker since.”

“I was just interested and I didn’t know I would be here for as long as I have. So it has worked out well for me,” he said. He does it on his own time, receiving only a small bursary for expenses. “Not many people can say they get this close to bison,” he said.

“My regular day job is to maintain telephone services at Wainwright and 4 Wing Cold Lake,” he said. He is also the Acting Team Lead for Voice Services in the Western and Northern Region in support of DND for Shared Services Canada. WO (Retd) Bachelder joined the military as a Lineman and retired as a Land Communications and Information Systems (LCIS) technician.

The bison are wild, for the most part, and don’t require much direct management. “Normally we just watch the herd to ensure their health and welfare, maintain the herd numbers by removing many of the yearlings each spring prior to the arrival of new calves. We also feed the herd hay throughout the winter months.”

WO (Retd) Bachelder said, “The bison were removed in 1939 when the military took over this area and in 1980 they brought, I think it was four of them, and they’ve been here since then. We bring in new bulls from time to time, mostly from Elk Island National Park, near Edmonton, which has a large herd. That is how we keep inbreeding down.”

About 12 to 15 calves are born each spring. They are red in colour and are up and running around soon after birth. The red colouring is quite a contrast against the black coats of their parents.

“We need to keep the herd at around 40 animals. Depending on how many we have each year, we take 8 to 10 of the calves and sell them to a local rancher. That’s one way we keep the numbers in line,” he said. “Then we take three to five adults a year and they are butchered and sold to the troops in Wainwright.”

“The bison meat can’t be served in the mess hall as it is provincially inspected, whereas meat used in the mess hall must be federally inspected,” he noted. “But the troops can buy it from us.”

A good turnout for the Bison Run is anticipated. “Hopefully, the bison will be in that part of their pasture so that people can see them,” said WO (Retd) Bachhelder.

In Roger Miller’s words of encouragement: “All ya gotta do is put your mind to it – knuckle down, buckle down, do it, do it, do it!”

This story was updated April 18, 2018.

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Related Links

The Wainwright Star 1909 Canada’s Great Buffalo Herd at Wainwright
Elk Island National Park
Bison Run

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Article / April 18, 2018 / Project number: 17-1043-earth-day

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