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The Struggles of Conservation

We’ve all heard the tales of how, at one time, the entire continent was full of roaming buffalo. Although the plains bison, what we refer to as “buffalo,” is no longer at the status of “threatened,” we have our local conservation efforts to thank.

However, giving Mother Nature a helping hand is rarely a simple process, and as Wainwright, Alberta, found out the hard way, sometimes success is your worst enemy.

But our past is a story of continuing to fight for the environment at all costs. Even when things became difficult, our town never quit trying to help.

The rise and successful closing of Buffalo National Park was a crowning achievement for our small town. Our hardest struggle now is ensuring that the story remains told.

Back from the Brink

Every country goes through the growing pains of balancing natural resources while populations spread. However, in the late 1800s, as both the Americans to the south and we Canadians continued expanding westward, the numbers of our buffalo plummeted.

At one time, there were 25 million plains bison throughout the United States and Canada. Due to expansion, we drove that figure to a mere 600.

That’s quite the population change. It’s like trying to find a motorcycle for sale among the new cars at a Ford dealership – possible, but extremely rare.

The first round of conservation efforts happened from generous individuals out on the plains. Some took it upon themselves to reintroduce bison in new regions, such as Alaska, while others merely adopted them as part of their livestock.

Other animals received helped as well. Elk and moose are like bison in many regards, and their numbers had also dwindled.

However, these methods were too slow, and although appreciated, they just weren’t fighting against the downward spiral. Drastic measures were needed soon, or else the North American’s iconic buffalo would become extinct.

The Buffalos of Wainwright

Today, it remains as the Canadian Forces Base Wainwright. But before it was a camp to our armed forces, it was full of buffalo.

The Buffalo National Park was known as a “regeneration park.” And, while it had little to do with Doctor Who, it did fight against extinction.

Beginning with just 700 buffalo purchased from Montana, the park flourished for 30 years. However, progress is not without its fair share of hurdles.

Imagine trying to control 700 animals that are all about the size of a Ford vehicle. Think of a busy car dealership, but all the used vehicles are grazing and running around.

Over the span of 31 years, this productive farm produced 40,000 bison! While their numbers today still pale in comparison to what they once were, it’s fair to say that they’re safe from extinction, at least for the moment.

Working Yourself Out of a Job

Most people would want job security. However, when you’re trying to save an entire species, working yourself out of a job is the goal.

Indeed, once the buffalo were back to a safe enough population, the park did close. Unfortunately, getting to that point was a rocky road to traverse.

Before the military could replace the mammals with new vehicles, the population had to reach a stable point. But raising thousands of giant creatures in a confined space is bound to develop issues.

For starters, living things all compete for resources. When those resources exist in a finite amount inside of a specified area, things grow competitive quickly.

Not only is it a race for the healthy specimens to get what they need, but then the park had an uphill battle with diseases. As the amount of buffalo grew, so did the rate of infections.

At first, they attempted to keep the general population healthy using controlled slaughters. Although this was a humane way to handle the problem, the public didn’t love hearing about the treatment of their sick mascots.

Unable to terminate the sick bison, the park turned to sharing the love instead. Each year, a portion of the uncontaminated bison would move elsewhere.

“Culling” is a standard process wherever people raise breeding animals. Whether this means only reproducing selective members or removing unwanted ones, culling was a significant factor in bringing the bison back.

Many inhabitants of Wood Buffalo National Park come from the Wainwright conservation efforts. As many as 7,000 buffalo were sent from Wainwright, ensuring that the local wild population had a chance to take off.

The elk and moose were coming back as well. The elk population grew to 3,000 within the park, and the moose reached 300.

Finally, by the 1940s, the park had accomplished its mission. The buffalo no longer stood threatened, and the park could close.

Today, a few of the powerful creatures still reside at the base. Named after the first warden of the park, Bud Cotton Paddock is a reminder of the town’s efforts.

Wainwright Today

Today, you’ll likely find more used vehicles with “for sale” signs than majestic buffalo. However, their imagery is everywhere; on the welcome sign, a giant buffalo attracts those who come to visit.

We even keep them in our town’s nickname. As the Buffalo Capital of Canada, we understand the role we’ve chosen in helping to preserve nature in our community.

That doesn’t mean that conservation can’t be fun. Each summer we host one of the most popular stampede events in the area.

While you may not find any buffalo in the rodeo events, gathering people and livestock makes talking about conservation simple. It also helps to have an “old west” setting to get people into the right frame of mind.

Even something as simple as convincing someone to look at hybrid or electric vehicles for sale when they next go to a car dealership is a win. The average person will likely choose new trucks instead.

But if we can change behaviors to be positive, even on a small scale, we may yet have buffalo well into the future.