An Ojibway community known as the Skownan First Nation (formerly called Watherhen Indian Reserve Number 45), has been able to assemble disparate ungulate mammals (large grazing herbivores) over a wide expanse of provincial crown lands in Manitoba’s Interlake region. Their traditional territory is between Lake Winnipeg and Lake Winnipegosis.
The Skownan’s protected landscape is now the only place in the world where these five large grazing herbivores co-exist: elk (wapiti), moose, woodland caribou, whitetailed deer and the wood bison. The region also has large predators, notably timber wolves and black bears.
Bison formerly roamed on the traditional territory of the Skownan. It is debated if they were of the wood or plains variety. They were wiped out by the 1870s by Euro-Canadian hunting in Manitoba and adjacent northwestern Ontario. Plains bison were later reintroduced to a fenced-in Riding Mountain National Park.
Today the only free-ranging bison herd in Manitoba is found in Chitek Lake Provincial Park. The 1,000 square kilometer park was established in 2014 in part as restored bison habitat. This achievement was the Skownans’ crowning success in a restoration process that had begun on their reservation lands.
In 1984, when their bison recovery began, the Skownan were like many impoverished native communities in western Canada between the agricultural frontier and the boreal forest. While four grazing herbivore species held on, affluent trophy hunters had decimated them on the provincial crown lands surrounding their tiny reservation. There was also a problem with deforestation from the expansion of agriculture. Fortunately, the deforestation and overhunting problems have decreased since large, protected areas, such as Chitek Lake Provincial Park, have been created.
The Skownan’s triumph in restoring wood bison to the boreal forest region substantiates the realism of some Russian scientists’ vision: to develop in northern Siberia what they call “Pleistocene Park.” This is the aspiration of Sergey Zimov and his son, Nikita, who are attempting to recreate the taiga/tundra grasslands of the last ice age, when the region was populated by millions of huge herbivores. The Zimovs maintain a fenced-in preserve of 20 square kilometers.
Among other things, they want to restore the European bison (Wisent), which were long ago wiped out in Russia but which survive in the Bialowiez forest straddling Poland and Byelorussia. The Wisent are the heaviest mammals still surviving on the European continent. Their considerable mass is one reason why their re-introduction is an important goal for Pleistocene Park. As wisent and other large animals graze, they trample the snow and expose permafrost to the winter cold. This keeps permafrost frozen and no greenhouse gas is emitted. There is but one solitary wisent in Pleistocene Park. Since such European bison are difficult to obtain, the Zimovs have imported eleven American plains bison.
Both bison and woodland caribou have herds involving millions of animals that significantly impact the landscape. Their trails create forest gaps. Their herds kick snow aside to reach the frozen grass beneath, and also trample the snow and keep the permafrost from melting. In a paper published by Nature’s “Scientific Reports,” the Zimovs announced that the animals in Pleistocene Park had reduced the average snow depth by half, and the average annual soil temperature by 1.9 degrees Celsius, with an even bigger drop in winter and spring.
Permafrost in the Northern Hemisphere contains about 1.5 trillion tons of carbon—three times as much as in all of the trees and plants on earth. The expansion of large animal herds is apparently the only nature-based way of preventing the release of methane from permafrost, which is now the most ominous factor in the climate crisis.
A geographer in Manitoba, Charles Harvey Payne, envisioned the restoration of wood bison in his province and based his masters and doctoral theses on his work with the Skownan on that project. Payne found the Skownan delighted “to demonstrate that Indian people could, and would, if they were trusted and assisted, initiate and develop a major conservation project.”
He reported that their springtime prescribed burns to assist bison habitat revived their traditional practices and, in the long term, protected forests from more destructive fires by removing fuel loads.
The Skownan carefully undertook their bison restoration efforts in stages. In 1984 they collected 34 wood bison, equal in sex distribution, from various zoos in western Canada, put them into a one-square-mile enclosure, and artificially fed them. The next year they obtained a larger three square-mile range for the wood bison. In the larger area artificially feeding eventually stopped. When the herd’s numbers increased to three hundred, the bison were found suitable for release into the wild onto Manitoba Crown lands that eventually became Chitek Lake Provincial Park.
The Skownans’ success shows the viability of the Pleistocene Park approach. Critics often point to the artificial feeding of animals in Pleistocene Park to critique its viability. Such artificial feeding was initially used by the Skownan, but was ended as the zooraised animals became more familiar with their habitat and given a larger area in which to graze. As Pleistocene Park expands and controls a larger area, comparable to the 1,000 square kilometer Chitnek Lake Park, such artificial feeding measures can be dispensed with.
The Skownan’s traditional territory is just south of the limit of permafrost in Canada, which straddles the northern edge of the interlake region of Manitoba. This edge is in an area of what is termed “isolated permafrost,” a belt which includes most of Canada’s Rocky Mountains. The restoration of bison to Banff National Park should, by trampling snow, help prevent the melting of such permafrost pockets. This can be complemented by struggles to reverse the region’s decline of woodland caribou herds. All of Manitoba was once free-ranging bison territory, which extended to the Arctic Ocean, including the denser blocks of sporadic, discontinuous and continuous Permafrost.
The US National Park Service online publication Bison Billows has mapped the former extent of the American bison’s range before European contact. It extended to the coastal plain tundra region, excluding the Arctic islands, which were apparently too difficult for bison to swim to.
Canada, given its limited population, is sometimes ridiculed for our efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This is not the case when permafrost is considered. The frozen peat of Canadian permafrost constitutes a methane bomb of billion of tons. Methane is 86 times as potent a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide over a twenty-year horizon. Melting permafrost in Canada is an issue which threatens efforts to reverse climate instability globally.
What can Canada do to stop permafrost melt? This should be considered an issue of national security. Its clear and present risk should be used to focus government policy to protect permafrost by restoring large grazing herbivores and excluding new developments, notably mines and logging, which degrade their habitat.
John Bacher is an environmental and peace activist based in St. Catharines.