What the Bison Man Knows

Wes Olson, Grasslands National Park
Wes Olson, Grasslands National Park

(This is the first installment in my series: Things Canadians Should Care About)

Wes Olson pokes the spaces between the rocks on the grassy hillside, checking for rattlesnakes, before letting us sit down. With that potential threat out of the way, he warns us about the bison. There are a few standing a good half mile away and the massive beasts are not likely to run you down for no good reason. But Wes tells us a good rule of thumb, literally, is to hold that digit out in front of you, look at it through one eye, and if any bison parts are visible on either side of your thumb, YOU ARE TOO CLOSE! Bison are deceptively fast, and given their size, well you just don’t want to be in the way.

He looks like his name sounds. Wes Olson: tall, rugged, sun-baked and mustached. I suppose that could also describe an outlaw, but his quiet and intelligent confidence speak to a character comfortable in his own skin and his own knowledge, and mostly at home in the nature that surrounds him. He is very, very wise and speaks of the bison as an elder might, with wisdom and grace. I have a sense that if he were to get a chance to actually talk to the politicians who decided not to replace him when he retired from Grasslands National Park in 2012, he would simply shake his head in wonder at the ignorance of humankind.

Bison, Grasslands National Park
Bison, Grasslands National Park

Because Wes knows bison. After thirty years of working with these ungulates in various parks across Canada, he’s come to understand and admire the bison in a way only someone truly in tune with them can. Their mating rituals; how their habit of constantly moving while grazing maintains native prairie grasses; how a bison’s skeletal structure supports its massive head and chest while giving it lightning speed; the ways in which bison manure supports dung beetles which in turn support bird species; that bison hair is the second warmest fibre in North America and is also water repellant; how the unique olfactory masking of this hair used in bird nests enhances chick survival from predators. These are just a few of the facts he shares with our eclectic group which includes authors, ranchers, scientists, and environmentalists, all interested in preserving grasslands and the species they support both within and outside the park.

Along with other senior staff in the park, the position Wes left was not filled. He has no one to pass his wisdom to, no one to care, in a single-minded way, about the bison which were re-introduced to the park in 2006. At that point there were 71 bison. In 2013 the total numbers were at 344, according to Wes. The objective was to hit 350 and study their effect on the native grasses in the park, how their grazing habits might help sustain pristine native prairie that is vital habitat to a multitude of species-at-risk. But this year there will be few park staff to watch, to count or to care.

IMG_3435 - CopyGrasslands is a long way from anywhere. It’s one of few dark sky preserves in the world. It’s a huge expanse of hills and draws covered in grasses and shrubs and lichens and wildflowers whose numbers I can’t begin to count. There are more than 12,000 archeological sites in the area, including teepee rings, effigies and burial sites. It is wondrous place, impossible, really, to comprehend. But that’s the point. It is only when you look out over the vista and then get up close and personal with the bison through the knowledge Wes offers, that somehow you too can feel it, just a little. A sense of history that remains little marked by the present, a feeling that here we have something awesome in the truest sense of that over-used word, a national treasure.

Much as Wes Olson is. More than one of the group referred to him as such, their faces crumbling in despair at the thought his knowledge and skill will be lost. But apparently if you live in a place isolated by geography, a national treasure means little and the bison he watched over even less. It is worth the trip to the grasslands of Southwest Saskatchewan to see and judge for yourself; see the animals, listen to the birds, touch the grasses and the flowers. They will make your heart sing. And when you’re inclined to dance to the rhythm, remember to let others know and to insist an apprentice is hired for Wes to mentor, and to understand that we are all responsible for the protection of those things worthy of preservation.

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