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Quest brought bison back from brink
Former park warden recounts finding lost herd in Wood Buffalo National Park

Kassina Ryder
Northern News Services
Monday, May 30, 2016

Earl Gordon says he didn't realize locating a herd of wood bison in the northwest corner of Wood Buffalo National Park in 1959 could save the species.

"I've brought it to the forefront because of my age. I'm 81 now," he said. "I'm probably the only last person that was on that expedition."

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Earl Gordon, Ray Steed and Harold Steed paddle Pine Lake in Wood Buffalo National Park in the late 1950s. The Steed brothers and Gordon were members of a crew that found a herd of wood bison in the park in 1959 that was used to repopulate herds around the world. - photo courtesy of Earl Gordon

Gordon was part of a crew that found a herd of wood bison now responsible for repopulating bison herds not only in Canada, but around the world, said Todd Shury, a wildlife veterinarian with Parks Canada.

NNSL photo/graphic
A group of men stand over a wood buffalo. - photo courtesy of the National Museum of Canada

"The significance of them is they sort of formed the whole basis of wood bison recovery, which has happened in Canada over the last 30 years or so," he said. "They subsequently went on to Alaska, there is a herd in Siberia in a place called Yakutsk and they're going to be hopefully releasing a free ranging herd there."

Gordon was a 24-year-old warden with Parks Canada when he was asked to accompany biologists with the Canadian Wildlife Service to find what was believed to be the world's last purebred herd of wood bison.

Gordon's friend Harold Steed from Fort Smith and Harold's brother Ray, as well as local labourers and researchers with the Canadian Wildlife Service joined Gordon on the journey.

"Hope had lingered that maybe there was still some pure-bred wood bison left and if so, they would be corralled and captured and brought out and starting new herds," Gordon explained. "So this is what triggered it all off."

By the beginning of the 1900s, there were only an estimated 500 pure wood bison in the world, according to Parks Canada.

When Wood Buffalo National Park was created in 1922, the number had grown to about 1,500 animals.

An additional population of plains bison from Wainwright, Alta. were shipped to Wood Buffalo National Park between 1925 and 1928 because that herd's numbers had grown too large for its former range.

Because of Wood Buffalo's size, it was believed that the new plains bison weren't likely to breed with the existing wood bison population.

But by the 1940s, interbreeding had occurred so often that biologists believed all of the bison in the park were a hybrid species of plains and wood bison.

The plains bison had also brought bovine tuberculosis and brucellosis into the population.

However, an aerial survey of the park in the late 1950s revealed a surprise, Gordon said. Researchers found a herd of bison that were darker than those that had mixed with the plains bison.

"Because these were darker looking buffalo than the plains, it sort of triggered some imagination there that maybe these could be wood bison - pure bison that never got contaminated with the plains," he said.

While genetic testing has now revealed that it was likely the herd had indeed interbred with the plains bison, their isolated location would have meant fewer members with plains bison genes, Shury said.

"This herd was farther away, so it probably didn't have as much plains bison in it," he said.

Gordon and the crew set off in search of the herd, which was in the Nyarling River area, about 100 kilometres northwest of Fort Smith, in 1959.

Gordon's job was to break a trail through the bush as silently as possible and shoot five animals, which would then be sent for testing.

"We used Swede saws and axes so we didn't disturb them and they'd run away ... we didn't use any power saws or anything," Gordon said.

It took two days to reach the area.

"When we broke into the meadow, which was about 100 acres, there was the herd," Gordon said.

The animals bolted and then turned to watch them.

"That moment, I had bailed out of the Bombardier with this rifle and I shot five head," he said. Samples were sent to labs in Ottawa and the skulls were measured and compared to wood bison skulls found in the area before the arrival of the plains bison.

At the time, scientists believed the animals were pure wood bison.

While that ended up proving false, the animal's segregation from other herds meant fewer animals carried bovine tuberculosis or brucellosis, Shury said.

In the 1960s, 18 healthy bison were taken to the Mackenzie Bison Sanctuary, he said.

Another 23 were taken to Alberta's Elk Island National Park.

But while none of the bison that went to the Mackenzie sanctuary carried disease, some of the animals taken to Elk Island did.

"Several of those animals actually came down with tuberculosis," Shury said. "The founder animals had to be killed and they only salvaged their calves from those animals."

Shury said nothing but luck was responsible for the health of the Mackenzie herd.

"It was just very fortunate that those 18 animals that went to start the Mackenzie Bison Sanctuary were actually truly disease-free because the testing methods they had back then were not nearly as good as what we have now," he said. "It was a bit of luck."

Gordon and his wife remained friends with Harold Steed and his wife, Milly. The couples took vacations together and made a point of visiting each year. Steed died in January of this year - his funeral is scheduled to take place in Fort Smith on June 3.

Gordon said he hopes sharing his account of who found the wood bison will help the story live on.

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