The fate of buffalo in Central Alberta

Central Alberta has an incredible wealth and diversity of natural vegetation and wildlife. However, despite this wonderful abundance, the natural world can also be very fragile and easily disrupted by humankind.

Probably the best example of this is the fate of the bison, more commonly known as the buffalo.

It is hard for us today to realize how prolific the buffalo once were.

In ancient times, the prairies and the parklands were black with the huge numbers of the animals. Annie L. Gaetz, in her book The Park Country, related how David McDougall, one of the famous McDougall missionary family, was once forced to wait for more than three days at the Red Deer Crossing until an enormous herd of buffalo crossed the river and he had a chance to ford.

In a similar story, she recounted how McDougall was prevented from making his way across what are now the Central School grounds because the large number of buffalo cows and calves that were blocking his way.

The First Peoples of Central Alberta enjoyed a relatively rich and comfortable life by relying on the buffalo as their main source of food, clothing, material for shelter and utensils. The First Peoples made such efficient use of the buffalo that sometimes the animals were referred to as the ‘factories of the plains.’

The journals of the early explorer Anthony Henday give us a glimpse of how well the First Nations lived, particularly after they acquired the horse and the gun which made it much easier to hunt the buffalo.

In 1754, he described an encampment at Pine Lake as having 200 large teepees, arranged in two long rows with a broad ‘avenue,’ nearly a kilometre long. The chief’s tent was located at one end and was large enough to contain 50 people. There was food in tremendous abundance: boiled buffalo meat served in baskets and large haunches roasted on the fire.

By the mid-19th century, large buffalo hunter camps were established north east of what is now Delburne and around Buffalo Lake. At their peak, these communities of Tail Creek and Boss Hill were the largest inhabited places west of Winnipeg.

However, they were also the sign of the rapid decline of the buffalo. The herds that used to populate the Red River Valley and eastern Saskatchewan were rapidly vanishing. The Metis buffalo hunters consequently were forced to move to west Central Alberta to find herds large enough to sustain their way of life.

Not long afterwards, the buffalo vanished from this part of the world as well.

The last reported sighting of wild buffalo in the Red Deer area occurred north of the Red Deer Crossing in the summer of 1884. There were a mere six animals in the herd.

Nature quickly responds to sudden changes. One of the first consequences of the near extinction of the buffalo was the disappearance of the magpie. These birds of the corvidae family became so scarce that any sighting of them became front page news. It was not until the arrival of large herds of cattle and the large amounts of waste and debris left around by humankind that the magpie made a major comeback in numbers.

The years 1887-1888 were recorded as being amongst the very best hunting seasons in Central Alberta’s history.

Various species of wildlife rapidly filled the space left by the vanishing buffalo. C.G. Ross reported shooting 40 prairie chickens in an hour. One First Nations hunter was able to shoot 11 deer in a couple of days in the Hunting Hills southeast of Red Deer.

Later, two hunters were able to bag 37 deer in the same area in less than a week, along with a number of wolves and lynx.

However, the wild buffalo never returned. Those that are found in Central Alberta today are those that are being raised by local farmers and ranchers.

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