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Bison released on Key First Nation land

Seen as a positive for entire community
bison release for media Parks Canada 72
The day the bison were release on the Key First Nation lands.

KEY FIRST NATION - Plains bison are now roaming an area of the Key First Nation. 

Through partnerships with Government of Canada and Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC), a new plains bison herd has been established on the First Nation reserve near Norquay. 

Clinton Key, a Councillor for the First Nation said the introduction of the bison was a huge moment for the people. 

“We probably haven’t had anything positive on our First Nation in 20-25 years,” he said, adding there have been problems with drugs, limited economic opportunities and political issues which have all had a negative impact. 

The arrival of the bison is, by contract, hugely positive, said Key one of the local people who worked to bring the herd to the reserve. 

“It brings a lot of pride back to the community. There has been so much division out there. “… It gives us hope,” he said, adding it was the hope for something positive that has had him working on the bison project for half a dozen years. “. . . The people are proud. It gives them something to talk about . . . They’re just a benefit for the community.” 

Christopher Gareau, also a band Councillor worked on the project too, and also sees the arrival of the bison as big for the First Nation. 

“This is making a dream come true … It’s a monumental moment for the Key … I’m ecstatic,” he told Yorkton This Week. Adding he has long believed in the idea of repatriating bison to the reserve. “. . . I campaigned on this idea when I ran for office. I’ve been advocating to have bison on the Key.” 

Gareau said the bison can be a unifying force on a reserve that has faced its share of adversity. 

“It’s creating unity and togetherness within the community,” he said. “. . . It can create that harmony within the community.” 

In that regard Gareau said he was satisfied by the positive reaction to the recent arrival. 

“It created a vibe,” he said. 

In a government release federal Minister of Environment and Climate Change Steven Guilbeault said the project was a positive for all involved. 

“Our Government has made it a key commitment to support wildlife conservation efforts and the recovery of threatened species, like bison,” he said. “Plains bison are an iconic keystone species of the Great Plains and their importance to the cultural, economic and spiritual heritage for The Key First Nation and other Indigenous groups of the Prairies cannot be overstated. It is truly an honour to help this majestic animal survive and thrive once again, and restore this vital cultural heritage of Indigenous peoples of the Northern Great Plains.”  

“The near extinction of plains bison was a devastating loss for Indigenous peoples across the Great Northern Plains. This collaboration with The Key First Nation to return plains bison to their land is a positive example of Parks Canada and Indigenous peoples working together and taking important steps toward conserving natural and cultural heritage, and sharing the stories of this majestic animal,” added Marc Miller, Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations in the same release.

Key said people have been watching the bison from the day they arrived, when he estimated 200 showed up for the release. 

“They’re looking at them every day,” said Key, adding people are asking if they can feed them, but that is not part of the plan for the herd. 

“We don’t feed them. We don’t water them. They’re wild animals,” said Key, explaining they want the herd to live as naturally as possible, although they are maintained in an area that has been fenced. “… You don’t feed them. It would change who they are.” 

Key said feeding a wild herd would essentially “be putting the buffalo on welfare.”

Now the people are waiting for the next generation of bison to arrive. 

“They’re already waiting for the calves,” said Key.

The project was helped to fruition through partnerships, said Key, pointing to the support from both the Nature Conservancy of Canada and Parks Canada as important in leading to the arrival of the bison. The NCC manages a bison conservation herd at the Old Man on His Back Prairie and Heritage Conservation Area (OMB). 

“Established by the NCC in 1996, OMB is a 5,297-hectare ranch located in Treaty Four Territory in southwest Saskatchewan. This area continues to hold cultural and spiritual importance for many Indigenous Nations including Anishnaabe, Dakota, Lakota, Nakoda, Nêhiyawak, Niitsitapi and Métis,” noted a release. 

“In 2003, NCC introduced a herd of 50 plains bison to reside within the native grasslands at OMB, as part of its management goals of returning large-scale ecosystem processes to the landscape. NCC’s management of this small, disease-free bison herd incorporates minimal, respectful handling of the animals and sustainable grazing management.” 

Jennifer McKillop, Saskatchewan Regional Vice-President for Nature Conservancy of Canada said the release was important, given its cultural significance. 

“Indigenous peoples of North America lived alongside bison for thousands of years, and in many Indigenous cultures, bison and humans are inextricably linked,” in a release. “The grazing patterns of bison also help shape the vegetation composition, ecosystem function and structure of the Prairies. Partnerships with Indigenous communities are a vital part of NCC’s work as a land conservation organization. We strive to ensure that collaborating with Indigenous peoples becomes a routine part of our conservation work. We are honoured to help establish a plains bison herd for The Key First Nation.”  

The Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) has been working with The Key First Nation (TKFN) since early 2019. At that time, TKFN was in the planning process for establishing a plains bison herd at TKFN, and NCC was in the beginning stages of the development of a long-term management plan for the Old Man on His Back Prairie and Heritage Conservation Area (OMB) bison herd. 

A member of TKFN attended an initial Indigenous Advisory Group meeting in Regina in March 2019. As well, members from TKFN attended an NCC-hosted weekend gathering at OMB and participated in discussions on bison conservation and management in May 2019. During the gathering, the TKFN members toured the OMB bison-handling facilities and infrastructure to help inform their plans for setting up pastures and handling facilities at TKFN. 

“All the resources came from outside the band,” he said, adding that was critical since the project was not one unanimously supported by the Band Council. “. . . It was good negotiations, good partnerships.” 

If not for the outside support it’s unlikely the bison would have arrived, said Key, adding locally support was far from unanimous. 

“It was a fight,” he said adding he just kept moving ahead. “ … I did what I had to do to get them (the bison) out there.”

Now that the first bison have arrived, plans are percolating for more expansive opportunities connected to the big animals. Bison are North America’s largest land mammal. Once, millions of them ranged across the continent from Alaska to Mexico. Bison play a vital role in Indigenous livelihoods and cultures on the plains. 

They can play that cornerstone role again, believes Key. 

While the new herd will be left as wild as possible, a few animals harvested at times to feed the community, there are plans that would see a second, commercial herd established, a herd more domesticated and raised to be butchered and the meat sold, all processes that could be carried out on reserve with the right investment in infrastructure. 

A bison processing facility would create jobs. 

“I see such opportunity for spin-offs,” said Gareau, adding it goes back to bison always having been a resource for First Nations, and they can be again. “. . . There’s a cultural relationship.” 

That is a big part of the bison’s arrival, the hope that the community can now begin to build something positive, “that we can change the culture of the Key First Nation,” said Key. 

In some respects, that process is already happening, the success of getting the bison located “proves we can do it,” offered Key, pointing to the simple labour of building the fence. He said he told the workers “you’re not just building a fence here, you’re changing history.” 

The fence has partnerships behind it too. 

NCC has a long-standing relationship with the steel-production company Evraz, who generously donated steel drill-stem posts that were used in building the bison pasture fences at OMB. In 2019, NCC approached Evraz to see if they could also support bison pasture infrastructure at TKFN. Evraz donated several hundred steel drill-stem posts to TKFN to be used in setting up their bison pastures. 

Gareau said he might not be able to foresee exactly what might be built in terms of economic opportunities related to bison “but I know we’ve got something … The sky’s the limit . . . They’re looking after us. We’re looking after them.” 

One development could revolve around ecotourism, with a tipi village in the heart of the bison territory. Gareau note “the bison are ecosystem engineers,” since bison influence the landscape in ways that benefit many plant and animal communities. For example, their droppings act as fertilizer for plants and support insect populations, which in turn feed bird species and a source of food for predators. The process would create a diverse system for tourists to enjoy.

“All-in-all it’s a very uplifting event for the band, and the community,” said Key.