New Book – The Ecological Buffalo: On the Trail of a Keystone Species

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Wes Olson and Johane Janelle (photographer). The Ecological Buffalo: on the trail of a keystone species. Regina, Saskatchewan: University of Regina Press, July 2022.

The mere mention of the term Buffalo instantly brings to mind the vast herds that once roamed this continent. Few wild animals captivate our imaginations as much as the bison of North America. Once numbering in the tens of millions, these magnificent creatures played a significant role in structuring all the varied ecosystems they occupied. For at least 24,000 years North American Indigenous peoples depended upon them, and it was the abundance of bison across the continent that initially facilitated the dispersal of humankind across the continent. 

With the arrival of Europeans and their rapacious capacity for wildlife destruction, the dominant mammal on the continent was all-but exterminated, seemingly in the blink of an eye. And with them went all of the intricate food webs, the trophic cascades, and the inter-species relationships that had evolved over thousands of years. It all came to a catastrophic end over a 30 year period in the mid-1800s. From more than 30 million, plains bison were reduced to just 23 wild bison in the heart of Yellowstone National Park (plus 250 in zoos and on farms). Plains bison were completely extirpated from Canada by the mid-1880s, and across northern Canada, only 250 wood bison remained.

Despite this brush with extinction, plains and wood bison survived and isolated populations are today slowly recovering. As this recovery proceeds, the relationships the animals once had with thousands of other species are being re-established in a remarkable process of ecological healing. The intricacy of those restored relationships is the subject of the new book; The Ecological Buffalo: On the Trail of a keystone species.

“As this recovery proceeds, the relationships the animals once had with thousands of other species are being re-established in a remarkable process of ecological healing. The intricacy of those restored relationships is the subject of the new book; The Ecological Buffalo: On the Trail of a keystone species.”

On the 14th of July, 2008 Johane photographed of a herd of plains bison grazing the native prairie in Grasslands National Park. As it turned out, this was to be the first of thousands of photographs she took on our journey to explore and understand the complex ecological functions that bison provide to the habitats in which they lived – and where they still live today.

Over the next 14 years this journey took us to most of the parks and refuges with bison across most of North America. From the New England hardwood forests south to the Florida panhandle and west through the cross-timbers and tallgrass prairies and into the Great Plains, we poked our noses into an amazing array of landscapes and ecosystems. searching for the species bison share space and time with.

From the dry deserts of the southwest we travelled northwards, deep into the heart of the vast boreal forests of Canada and further northwest into the incredibly vast sedge meadows of central  Alaska. In our research for The Ecological Buffalo, we discovered that there are at least 384 terrestrial mammals in North America, and of these about 70% (about 270 species) lived within the historical range of bison. Every one of these would be influenced in one way or another by the presence of bison on the landscape.

We could not photograph or write about all of the wildlife species which bison would have influenced, but with more than 180 stunning photographs, 30 illustrations and in the text, we present examples of relationships bison have with 60 mammal, 51 bird, 8 amphibian, 5 reptile, 17 plant and 29 invertebrates species.

The culmination of this 14 year-long project is The Ecological Buffalo: On the trail of a keystone species. It is our hope that when you have read the book and enjoyed the imagery, you will have a better understanding about how connected we all are with this magnificent species, and perhaps, it will make you pay a little more attention to the intricacies, and fragility of nature.

Wes Olson has worked in the field of wildlife and landscape conservation for more than four decades. His career began in the Yukon in 1977 while working as a Wildlife Technician, studying everything from mice and voles to the Porcupine caribou herd. From there he moved to northwestern Alberta, conducting surveys on moose and woodland caribou during the winter and radio-collaring black and grizzly bears in the foothills west of Grand Prairie.

In 1981 he began a career as a National Park Warden in Banff National Park, then to Waterton Lakes and, in 1984, to Elk Island National Park. It was during his twenty-four years in Elk Island that he became passionate about everything related to Canada’s plains and wood bison populations.

During those years, he participated in the reintroduction of bison into many areas of their former historic ranges – in Alberta, Saskatchewan, British Columbia, Yukon, Northwest Territories, Alaska, and central Siberia. Those experiences left him with a deep appreciation for the keystone ecological role that bison provide to the ecosystems they share with other species.

Johane Janelle was born and raised in the small Quebec village of Cap-Sante on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River. The love of travel and adventure took her out west, and she was there to stay. Through life’s twists and turns Johane has worked in a variety of nature-related fields – from the Calgary Zoo, where she flew birds of prey and did visitor interpretation, to National Parks, where she worked on everything from bison handlings and radio telemetry tracking trumpeter swans, to media design, photography, and park interpretation.

Recently her focus has been more on conservation photography, providing photo documentation of the work done by biologists, conservationists, and researchers. She has been involved in documenting several bison reintroductions into wild places such as central Siberia, Alaska, and Banff National Park.

For more than twenty years, Johane’s images have been published in a number of magazines, such as Nature Alberta, Nature Sauvage, Canadian Geographic, and Blue Jay, as well as on the covers of many equine magazines. Her photography has also been used for websites, brochures, banners, and presentations for different groups involved with the conservation of wild species and wild places.

Wes and Johane now live on an eighty-acre patch of forest and beaver ponds beside Elk Island National Park in central Alberta. They are also the author and photographer of A field Guide to Plains Bison, and Portraits of the Bison: An Illustrated Guide to Bison Society.

Feature Image: “Bison” by kewing is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.
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