The area around Muncho Lake Provincial Park and Liard River Corridor Provincial Park west of Fort Nelson is well known to residents of northeast British Columbia who enjoy traveling up and down the Alaska Highway to their favourite campsites.
It is also well known to a small herd of wood bison that are as commonly seen by those travelers as the crows that dart back and forth across the road.
“That’s actually called the Nordquist Herd,” explained Sonja Leverkus.
Leverkus is a doctoral candidate at Oklahoma State University specializing in pyric herbivory and landscape ecology. She is also a professional agrologist and registered professional biologist who has previously worked for the BC Forest Service in Fort Nelson.
Wood bison are one of her special interests.
“In 2009, I was involved in a project with the Ministry of Environment whereby we collared five cows in the Nordquist herd with GPS collars,” said Leverkus, discussing her interest in the threatened species. “And at the same time, there was also five collars put on the herd at Fontas. So, up the Fontas Road.”
That herd is known as the Etthithun Lake herd.
“Soon thereafter,” she continued, “I started doing graduate research while working for the Forest Service. And incorporated the bison into my thesis. By that I mean I have been analyzing their movements across the landscape through using the GPS collars.”
The collars register a location every hour.
Eventually, the collared animals were tranquilized again so that the collars could be removed, and Leverkus analyzed the data to determine the movements of the Nordquist Herd, which numbers about 120 to 150 individuals.
“The herd at Nordquist was introduced in 1995 by the Ministry of Environment,” said Leverkus. “In the early 1900’s, all wood bison in British Columbia were killed out. And so there were no more wood bison in B.C. until 1995 when the Ministry of Environment released – reintroduced – this herd… up at Nordquist Lake.
“There is a Canadian wood bison recovery strategy,” she added, explaining that that plan involves reintroducing disease-free and free-roaming animals to segments of their historical range throughout the country.
The Nordquist Herd was reintroduced with 49 head in 1995.
“It is really an important herd,” said Leverkus, “because it’s one of only two herds in B.C. and it contributes to that wood bison recovery strategy.”
The successful reintroduction of wood bison in that area faces a significant challenge.
“Around the same time that the bison got released, the right-of-way of the Alaska Highway got seeded with domestic seeds,” Leverkus explained. “The theory was supposed to be that the bison would stay out at Nordquist Lake and they would spread and roam across this giant landscape like they used to do.
“But what we are able to show now from the GPS collars is that the bison stay on the right-of-way of the Alaska Highway pretty much 72 per cent of their entire life. And so that’s a problem because the right-of-way in some places is only 100 metres wide. And it’s nice for tourists to see the wood bison, but it means that a lot of bison die every year from motor vehicle accidents.
“We have anywhere from 10 to 15 head in some years get killed on the highway because people hit them,” she added.
That is especially problematic for a species that is threatened and a population that has only managed to triple its size from a modest 49 individuals in 17 years.
“I would say that the part of the reintroduction that was not successful is the lack of habitat enhancement,” said Leverkus, counting the population growth that has occurred and the increased awareness of the animal as successes.
“It is completely, totally unsuccessful because of the lack of government support for the habitat enhancement,” she reiterated.
“Actually, that means the appropriate ecological restoration of the wood bison has not happened.”
Leverkus established a partnership with the Fort Nelson First Nation during the past year to launch a project to “document the historical and traditional use of fire by the Dene.”
The partners received a grant from Environment Canada for the project.
“We had the plan in place this year to do a really large scale proscribed fire,” said Leverkus.
“Everybody is really keen to keep fire on the landscape,” she continued, “because the bison are attracted to open areas as well as good forage. So, we had a whole project set. We had done all the work, all of the logistics. We just needed the government to come onboard and support it, and they wouldn’t. So, that is a significant impact, not only to bison habitat, but also to our research project.”
There is recent evidence that the bison in the region do prefer areas impacted by fire.
“I said 72 per cent of their time was spent within 100 metres of the Alaska Highway,” Leverkus explained.
“The rest of that time we do see them go to where there were some smaller proscribed burns that have been conducted by the guide outfitter in the area. Ee do see that they are attracted to fire.”
Leverkus can see why the bison prefer the highway right-of-way in the absence of lands impacted by fire.
“In the Nordquist example,” she said, “it’s because the canopy is closing in and there’s not enough open area in the forest for them to roam.”
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations (FLNRO) said the Province doesn’t rule out proscribed fires to improve bison habitat, but would have to adequately consult with Treaty 8 First Nations in order approve such action.
That consultation didn’t occur this summer.
However, it has also been suggested that the Province is reluctant to approve proscribed fires because, although it would create good habitat for bison, it could create further problems for the dwindling caribou herds in the Northeast.
Open areas produced by fire could also attract deer and moose feeding on young vegetation that sprouts after the burn. Deer and moose subsequently attract wolves, which prey on caribou as well, particularly when caribou are removed from the relative safety of the forest.
That is a conservation problem that oil and gas industry companies operating in the Horn River Basin shale gas play are attempting to solve.
Presently, the industry-sponsored Science and Community Environmental Knowledge Fund (SCEK) is funding a project led by Craig DeMars of the University of Alberta to study predation risks for caribou and the associated management implications.
The industry has also tried to reduce their impact on the caribou through initiatives such as low impact seismic that limit the corridors of open space where wolves can easily spot and track caribou.
“The Province is interested in actively supporting habitat management for both caribou and bison,” said the FLNRO spokesperson, “but given their differing needs this is sometimes a complicated process. Ideally, we need to find ecological solutions that allow both animals to thrive.
“Addressing conflicting species requirements is an ongoing challenge. Both caribou and bison are native species to B.C. and we have a responsibility to manage them both.
“The Etthithun Lake herd creates a greater challenge, because of its proximity to boreal caribou, which are at much greater risk than the caribou near the Nordquist buffalo herd.”
The Etthitun Lake herd is also closer to oil and gas industry activity.
Leverkus noted that the herd has actually benefited from the network of energy sector access roads in that area, as they offer land to roam where the traffic isn’t as intense – or as fast – as along the Alaska Highway.
“Those roads actually help facilitate bison moving across the landscape,” she said.
“That’s a pro for the oil and gas,” she continued. “An impingement is the fact that there are pipelines and wellheads, and there have been bison caught and trapped under some of those pipelines... That’s a con for the bison up there.”
Leverkus cringes at the suggestion that caribou management considerations should take precedence over bison management.
“Bison were already extirpated out of B.C. in the early 1900’s,” she said. “Boreal caribou have not yet met that fate.
“The B.C. government made a decision to re-introduce the bison,” she continued. “When a Species At Risk gets reintroduced to an area, it is not enough to just leave them there. Their habitat is critically important for them. And furthermore, the ecologically appropriate habitat is incredibly important.”
Leverkus isn’t promoting the widespread transformation of northeast B.C. into bison habitat.
“There must be a mosaic across the landscape in order to support and conserve the biodiversity,” she said.
Additionally, Leverkus suggests that the idea that what is good for bison could be bad for caribou indicates a high level of need for appropriate “ecological planning” to preserve habitat suitable for all species that call that region their home.
According to FLNRO, the Province is interested in including the oil and gas industry in bison conservation efforts.
“We would be very interested in a dialogue about opportunities for managing caribou and bison on the same landscape, particularly within the Etthithun Lake group,” said a FLNRO spokesperson.
“We’re currently within our management objectives for that herd, but we’re interested for instance in how we can influence behaviour to reduce conflict between them and neighbouring caribou.”
Leverkus hopes the necessary work can be done.
“I think that bison are really important animals to have on the landscape because they are a keystone species of the boreal,” she said.
“I think that bison have always been part of the landscape and the ecosystem in northeast B.C. and I think that they deserve to continue being part of that. I think they’re another species that adds to the biodiversity throughout the boreal forest. And even more than ecologically, there are a lot of people who traditionally and culturally and spiritually associate with bison.
“They’re a pretty amazing animal.”