‘Empowering’: Bison herd grows at Woodland Cree First Nation

Fourteen wood bison were translocated from Elk Island National Park In March 2020 to begin the nation’s process of repopulating their lands

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After their disappearance for more than century, Chief Isaac Laboucan-Avirom looks at his nation’s herd of wood bison and feels inspired.

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“It just means so much, like anything is possible,” he said.

As a young firefighter, Laboucan-Avirom found a bison skull near his homelands at Woodland Cree First Nation and heard the message to bring them back.

In September 2019, his nation joined more than two dozen others in signing the Buffalo Treaty with the goal of restoring bison to the wild. A few weeks later, Parks Canada offered a herd, and he knew it was time.

Fourteen wood bison were translocated from Elk Island National Park In March 2020 to begin the nation’s process of repopulating their lands with a species that nearly went extinct. Now, there are 18.

  1. Wood bison are seen before undergoing health checks at Elk Island National Park outside of Edmonton, on Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020.

    Wood bison to return to Woodland Cree First Nation after more than a century

  2. Chief Isaac Ausinis Laboucan-Avirom of the Woodland Cree First Nation signs the treaty. Buffalo Treaty signing hosted by the Samson Cree Nation and in partnership with the Wildlife Conservation Society on September 19, 2019. The goal of the treaty is to restore buffalo to the traditional First Nations lands on the prairies. Photo by Shaughn Butts / Postmedia

    ‘A new era’: First Nations celebrate new signatories to historic Buffalo Treaty in Maskwacis

The return of the wood bison is both culturally and economically significant for the Woodland Cree First Nation. For Laboucan-Avirom, the herd holds the promise of food sovereignty — having healthy and culturally-appropriate foods available — by bringing back an animal they once hunted. There’s also the potential for getting into the agriculture business.

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“We are taking our land back, we are getting control of our destiny,” he said. “It’s empowering.”

‘Ranchers’

Traditional lands manager Lawrence Lamouche spent the last year-and-a-half learning how to keep wood bison happy and healthy — not something he expected with his job description.

“I wasn’t really hands-on with animals before,” he says. “We have a little inside joke now … we call each other ‘ranchers.’”

When the herd first arrived, Lamouche and his team set up a smaller enclosure to monitor the animals’ health and give them access to hay, minerals and water.

He spoke with local farmers for advice and talked with elders who shared their knowledge about moose and their habitats — some of which also applied to bison.

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“We had an elder tell us that they probably would do way better on river or lake water … and once we did that, they were all over it,” he said. “They seem to be a lot happier and healthier.”

Wood bison are seen before undergoing health checks at Elk Island National Park outside of Edmonton, on Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020. Fourteen bison are been sent to Woodland Cree First Nation.
Wood bison are seen before undergoing health checks at Elk Island National Park outside of Edmonton, on Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020. Fourteen bison are been sent to Woodland Cree First Nation. Photo by Ian Kucerak /Postmedia

Neither of their two males were breeding age, so Lamouche was surprised when he saw a baby in the hay not long after the herd’s arrival. Some females arrived pregnant.

“Very cute. It must have just happened … they were pretty wobbly,” he said. “My friends and colleagues, there were bugging me, so they named one after me.”

Within the next year, Lamouche plans to start working on a program to teach children about the wood bison — sakâw mostos in Cree — so they can learn more about their language and how to live with the animals respectfully.

“Being able to learn and to live with them and create a relationship here … it’s awesome, it’s magical sometimes,” he says. “It’s very important for the people to understand why they’re (here) and how they can help us as a community.”

For now, the animals live in an enclosure between 700 to 800 acres in size, but the chief’s goal is to eventually release a second herd into the wild.

lboothby@postmedia.com

@laurby

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