Chapter 2: Bison on Northern Great Plain

How has the bison lived on the Great Plains of North America, in southern Canada and the northern United States? Where has it stayed in winter, and where in summer? How far did they travel each year? Did the plains bison stay all winter out on the short-grass prairie? And has it migrated south in fall? If so, how far south? How much fodder is growing on its summer range and its winter range? How did the plains bison survive in winter, when there were blizzards and deep, crusted snow? How well is the plains bison adapted in winter to the deep cold of the Northern Plains? How much food must grow at least, so that the bison will be able to live there? How much aboveground dry plant matter (g DM/m² yr) must grow there at least per year? What have scientists found out about this?

Grace R. Morgan reports in his article, "Bison movement patterns on the Canadian Plains: an ecological analysis", published in: Plains Anthropologist Journal of the Plains Conference 25: 143-160 (1980): "Making some allowances for the herds on the Saskatchewan Plains, McHugh (1972:177-178) notes, that the bison in this area made short seasonal north and west migrations in fall from the exposed plains to wooded areas, to seek shelter from winter storms. ... Disruptive physical factors (Moodie and Ray 1976:49), affecting regional movements of the herds, were mild winters, which allowed bison, to remain on the open grasslands, deep snows, which prevented bison from reaching wooded areas, and prairie fires." (1980:144)

Henry Youle Hind (1971) states in his Narrative of the Canadian Red River Exploring Expedition of 1857 and of the Assiniboine and Saskatchewan Exploring Expedition of 1858, Edmonton: "Hind (1971:2:108-109) observed that: ‘The great western herds winter between the south and the north branches of the Saskatchewan (River), south of the Touchwood Hills, and beyond the north Saskatchewan (River) in the valley of the Athabaska (River); they cross the South Branch in June and July, visit the prairies on the south side of the Touchwood Hill range, and cross the Qu’Appelle Valley anywhere between the Elbow of the South Branch (of the Saskatchewan River) and few miles west of Fort Ellice on the Assiniboine. They then strike for the Grand Coteau de Missouri, and their eastern flank often approaches the Red River herds, coming north from the Grand Coteau. They then proceed across the Missouri up the Yellow Stone (River), and return to the Saskatchewan (River) and Athabaska (River) as winter approaches, by the flanks of the Rocky Mountains.’

"Hind’s defined winter range would generally include the Mixed Prairie, the Fescue Prairie of the Aspen Grove Region, the transitional grasslands of the Aspen Grove Region and the associated Valley complex system (Fig. 2). "Hind’s summer range correlates roughly with the Xeric Mixed Prairie (Fig. 2). The Qu’Appelle River-Moose Jaw Creek-Thunder Creek and South Saskatchewan River Valley complexes, plus their associated Mixed Prairie uplands could be considered as the natural southern boundary of Hind’s winter range."

"A significant differential therefore exists between the annual forage capacities of the two ranges. As previously calculated, the annual forage capacity of the exposed grasslands in the winter range is double the forage capacity of the summer range. The annual forage capacities of the sheltered areas of the winter range are four to five times as great as the summer range. A significant differential in spring productivity also is distinguished: the forage capacity of new spring grasses by the end of April in the exposed grasses areas of the winter range is approximately double the forage capacity of the summer range." Morgan, R. G. (1980:150)


The Annual Cycle

Where did the plains bison stay in winter and where in summer?

R. G. Morgan: "Early spring, the period, before the new growth of grasses begins, is a precarious phase in the seasonal life cycle of the bison populations. Not only are the herds physically weakened from the long winter, but food resources are approaching depletion, and the available grasses, after winter exposure, are at their lowest nutritive value (Clarke et al. 1945:20).

"Spring thaw, with its associated flooding and generally high moisture conditions, makes most of the remaining resources in the low-lying areas of the Valley complex inaccessible. These conditions force many of the herbivores into the Mixed Prairie Uplands, thereby intensifying grazing pressure on these areas. This shift to the Mixed Prairie may be sufficient impetus for some of the herds, to begin their journey to the summer range. In Wood Buffalo Park, where bison generally move northwest to the summer range and southeast to the winter range, Soper (1941:384) has observed:

"‘With the approach of spring, when the grassy lowlands begin, to thaw and flood with snow water, the herds start, to move more or less methodically westward... Withdrawal is so comparatively long and gradual, in relation to individuals and separate herds, that the visible process is much obscured. Some of these movements begin as early as the third or last week of February.’ (Soper 1941:384)

"In the site area (Moose Jaw area), the earliest spring growth of grasses occurs on upper southern exposure slopes, suggesting intense utilization of these areas. Spring growth on the Mixed Prairie uplands, which begins about the middle of the second week of April, alleviates some of these grazing pressures. Since spring growth on the low-lying areas of the Valley complex is significantly delayed, the stimulus of new spring grass on the Mixed Prairie uplands causes a major evacuation of herbivores from the Valley Complex.

"Similar dynamics are occurring in the Aspen Grove Region. Spring growth in the sheltered grassland areas is significantly delayed, so that the stimulus of new spring grasses on the exposed grassland areas causes major movements of herbivores out of the sheltered areas." Morgan, R. G. (1980:150, 151)

"As previously noted, the forage capacity of new spring grasses by the end of April on the exposed grassland areas of the winter range is double the forage capacity of the summer range. Therefore, during this time of the year the winter range has the greatest potential, to sustain large bison herd populations. Although new grasses are in limited supply, they are at their highest nutritive value.

"The above conditions suggest a gradual build up of population pressures on the exposed grassland areas of the winter range. However, herds, that have wintered along the southern periphery of the winter range in the Valley complexes, are experiencing a similar gradual dispersement onto the summer range. At this time of the year, when forage is in limited supply, the gradual displacement of the herds from the winter range to the summer range allows the available resources of both areas to be utilized simultaneously. Grazing pressures are reduced by being distributed over a larger area." Morgan, R. G. (1980:151)

"The low productivity of the summer range is a major factor influencing these patterns. As previously noted, the annual forage capacity of the grasslands on exposed areas of the winter range is almost double the annual forage capacity of the summer range. Also the forage capacity of the sheltered areas is four to five times as great as the forage capacity of the summer range. It is suggested, that for the effective utilization of an area low in productivity, the grazing pattern of small nomadic herds dispersed over a large area is essential.

"Nelson (1965:107) is of the opinion that: ‘One advantage, ... bison have over domestic livestock is the fact, that they are almost constantly on the move and do not remain in an area, until the plants are completely utilized, such as is the case with cattle in many instances. These behavior patterns suggest, that no one area is subjected to prolonged grazing pressures. Furthermore, a uniform utilization of a larger area allows for maximum forage intake, with the least detrimental effect on the grassland communities.’

"Soper (1941:384) reports, that some herds are almost stationary, moving only 5 to 10 miles, while other herds may travel as far as 150 miles, or a round-trip of about 300 miles. Distribution of herds throughout the summer range is also irregular. According to Soper (1941:382), ‘superior forage is the controlling factor.’ He maintains that low, swampy areas, unfit for grazing, have few bison, while in areas with high forage potential, bison are numerous.

"An important factor, limiting the movements of bison back to the winter range, is the availability of water. Large areas of the summer range are poorly integrated into the major drainage systems, many lakes are alkali and local water surpluses evaporate during the summer. The main streams of the Saskatchewan and Qu’Appelle Rivers become the major sources of surface water supplies. "If the effects of beaver occupation are considered, then the Valley complex in the prehistoric period was a more extensive network, than at present. Therefore, water resources on the winter range should have been more than adequate at this time of the year.

"Another factor, attracting bison herds to the winter range, is the availability of superior forage. By the end of July, most of the grasses in the summer range have cured, resulting in a marked decrease in nutritive value (Clarke et al. 1943:22). On the Mesic Mixed Prairie areas of the winter range, more favorable moisture conditions postpone the dormant stage. Grasses are still partially green in late September or early October (Coupland 1950:297-299), thus retaining more of their nutritive value." Morgan, R. G. (1980:152, 153)

"In the beaver-influenced Valley complexes, moisture conditions are even more favorable, than on the Mixed Prairie uplands, stimulating greater productivity and continued growth in the high density grass and sedge meadows on the low-lying areas. In the Aspen Grove region, the sheltering effect of aspens has a similar effect on associated grasslands. Since major movements of bison herds back to the summer range begin in May and the return to the winter range in fall, the above conditions have a high degree of applicability.

"The major advantage of this rotational system is, that in spring, grazing pressures on the winter range are reduced at a time, when grasses are still relatively immature and recovery is possible, even, if extensive utilization has occurred. There is also sufficient time for normal growth and seed production to be completed. Before the bison return to the range in fall, bison tend to remain and graze on open grassland areas, until adverse climatic conditions force them, to seek sheltered areas.

"Therefore, until the arrival of the first snows, a gradual build up of bison populations occurs on the open grassland areas of the winter range, near adequate water supplies. Movements tend to be of a localized nature, with the Valley complexes and lakes as the major focal point for water supplies, from which the herds radiate out on to the Open Mixed Prairie grasslands for forage.

"Adverse climatic conditions, such as blizzards or cold weather, force major movements of the herds into sheltered areas. The trail networks indicate, that individual herds tend to return to specific wintering habitats. Major concentrations or aggregate herds are found in these localities or in the vicinity for the remainder of the winter.

"Soper (1941:380) comments that: In winter habitat, bison are comparatively sedentary. Evidently the same herds may be observed in the same extensive meadows and plains at intervals over months of time. Once in selected winter quarters, groups are unlikely, to travel very much, as long as feed is available.

"At this time of the year, the sheltered areas of the Aspen Grove and the Valley complex systems offer the optimum forage potentials. The associated grasslands, with forage capacities, four to five times greater, than the summer range, are the only areas, able to accommodate the high density sedentary herds. During severe winters, which force utilization of these areas for a prolonged period of time, the high productivity of these grasslands, plus the availability of alternate food supplies, can provide the margin for survival.

"Though temperature and snow conditions during the winter are more favorable in the site area, than in the northern areas of the winter range, blizzard conditions are more pronounced. Blizzards, as defined by Longley (1972:52), occur for 150 hours per winter in the Moose Jaw area (site area). Moving north, Saskatoon (on the fringe of the Aspen Grove Region) averages only 25 hours of blizzards and North Battlefield (centered in the Aspen Grove Region) has 11 hours (Fig. 2). This suggests, that herds, wintering in the site area (in the Moose Jaw area) are forced, to concentrate for longer periods of time in the sheltered localities.

"Heavy snows do not as a rule restrict bison movements or feeding habits excessively. Soper (1941:401) remarks ‘... that the bison in deep powdery snow can for a time travel faster, than a galloping dog train on a broken trail.’ McHugh (1958:5) has observed, that bison were able, to feed on grasses in snow up to four feet deep. Elk (= wapiti) also are also able, to forage through snow for grass supplies.

"Heavy snow falls, combined with periods of thawing and freezing, sometimes create an unbreakable crust, which prevents accessibility of the grasses. Interspecific competition under these conditions reaches its greatest intensities, and grass forage, for all herbivores, is restricted to open wind-swept slopes, resulting in heavy utilization of these areas.

"Contemporary investigations of bison herds by Meagher in Yellowstone National Park have prompted similar observations: ‘... climatic influence (long winters, periods of prolonged cold, deep and sometimes crusted snow) acting directly or indirectly on the bison, were the most important mortality factors’ (Meagher 1973:73).

"A combination of cold temperatures, no snow, and surface water supplies under a thick crust of ice is another example of winter conditions, contributing to a high mortality rate. Survival for bison populations often reaches its most critical stage during the winter phase of the annual cycle." Morgan, R. G. (1980:154, 155)


A Prairie bison bull on the eastern foothills of the Rocky Mountains, in the rain-shadow, where annual precipitation is slow and dryness large. From: Grzimeks Enzyklopädie (1988:398) Volume 5.


Bison Movement Patterns on Canadian Plains

The bison on the Canadian Plains: where did it stay in winter and where in summer?

R. G. Morgan: "The geographic position of the vegetative communities, that constitute the summer and winter ranges, commits the seasonal movements of the Saskatchewan herds to a north-south orientation. This generally involves a southward movement to the summer range and a northward movement to the winter range.

"Herds, wintering in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, move east, to reach the summer range and west, to reach the winter range (Fig. 4). Historical evidence (Grinnell 1962:234) corroborates movement patterns of this nature: As spring opened, the buffalo would move down to the more flat prairie country, away from the pis’kuns. Then the Blackfeet (Indians) would also move away. As winter drew near, the buffalo would again move up close to the mountains, and the Indians, as food began to become scarce, would follow them towards the pis’kuns.

"The Manitoba herds are committed also to a general east-west orientation. However, the geographic placement of the ranges is reversed, so that herds would move west, to reach the summer range and east, to the winter range (Fig. 4). These movement patterns are substantiated by Hind (1971:107-18) who notes: "‘The bands (bison), belonging to the Red River Range, winter on the Little Souris, and south-easterly towards and beyond Devil’s Lake, and thence on the Red River and the Shayenne. Here too, they are found in the spring. Their course lies west towards the Grand Coteau de Missouri, until the month of June, when they turn north, and revisit the Little Souris from the west, winding around the west flank of the Turtle Mountain to Devil’s Lake, and by the main river (Red River) to the Shayenne again.’

"Historical evidence implies, that the summer range was shared with some of the Montana herds. Hornaday (1889:424) has observed: ‘... the great Montana herds spent the summer on the Grand Coteau des Prairies, lying between the Saskatchewan and Missouri (rivers) ... The herds, which wintered on the Montana ranges, always went north in the early spring, usually in March... It is equally certain, however, that a few small bands remained in certain portions of Montana throughout the summer. But the main body crossed the international boundary and spent the summer on the plains of the Saskatchewan (River), where they were hunted by the half-breeds from the Red River settlement and the Indians of the plains." Morgan, R. G. (1980:157, 158)

D.W. Moodie, and A. Kay (1976) report in their article, "Buffalo migrations in the Canadian Plains" in Plains Anthropologist 25: 142-160: "McHugh has noted, that ‘Buffalo herds in the northwestern portion of the Great Plains, especially Alberta and Saskatchewan, made short seasonal migrations... abandoning the exposed plains, to seek shelter in wooded areas during piercing winter storms.’ These migrations are described, as being northward and westward into treed areas...’ (1972:176-78).

"Walker has also written of regular buffalo movements in the northwestern plains and, like McHugh, has attributed these movements to the need for shelter. Walker has emphasized the role of topography in bison winter adaptation and has concluded that ‘... the bison were wintering in the valleys and wooded ravine systems of the Northwestern Plains... especially in small environmental niches.’ (1974:2)." Moodie and Kay (1976:46)

"Canadian Plains are defined here as the prairie and parkland regions of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. In the case of the Canadian Plains, it is readily apparent from the historical evidence, that the buffalo sheltered in the wooded areas in the coldest months of winter and, from spring until early winter, grazed in the open grassland. In Canada, the parkland, or the transition, which is ecotone (transition area) between open grassland and closed forest, varies in width from 25 miles to 150 miles and arcs in a broad semi-circle from southeastern Manitoba to southwestern Alberta (Fig. 1).

"Because of the arcuate (curved, half-circle) form of the parkland, regional migrations could depart considerably from a north-south axis. At the more local level, movement from the exposed grassland in winter was directed to river valleys and coulees, (a dry streambed, a small ravine) or to the outliers of woodland, located on topographic heights, such as the Manitoba Escarpment, Turtle Mountain or the Cypress Hills. Thus, individual herds or groups might move in any direction, although there was a general north-south tendency." Moodie and Kay (1976:46, 48)

"The evidence for these patterns has been derived mainly from the records of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and those of missionaries, who were long resident among peoples of the Canadian West, who depended upon the buffalo for their existence. The Hudson’s Bay Company’s archives contains, among a miscellany of materials, daily accounts of activities and events at the Company’s fur posts during the two hundred years, that the Company held title to Rupert’s Land. Since over much of this area, the Company’s transport, as well as the subsistence of its servants, became dependent in large measure upon regular supplies of buffalo meat and pemmican, the Company’s records contain a plethora (large amount) of comment on the animal, upon which much of their trade depended.

"The Company’s southernmost settlements were strategically located, to harvest the produce of the buffalo in both summer and winter. The latter was taken at these posts in the form of green or fresh meat, pounded meat, dried meat, pemmican and grease. The location of the Company’s posts in this respect was well summarized by one of the Company’s governors, A.G. Dallas (Hudson’s Bay Company, afterwards H.B.C., 1862), who wrote that ‘The Company’s posts between Red river and Edmonton are placed on the dividing line between the wooded country & the prairies, as close to the latter as good positions for wood & water can be found ... The main business of the Saskatchewan posts lies in procuring food for the other districts. Buffalo robes & a few furs come in as auxiliaries.’" Moodie and Kay (1976:48)

"Thus, from the end of the eighteenth century, until the Company ceded its territory to the Dominion of Canada in 1870, the Hudson’s Bay Company was most heavily dependent upon the buffalo, to expedite its trade in furs. It was also during this period, that the buffalo was most closely monitored by the Company’s servants. Sir George Simpson, who for forty years of this period was overseas governor of the Company, was perhaps better placed, than any other man, to comment on the ebb and flow of the buffalo around the Company’s provision posts. According to Simpson (1847: Vol. 1, 92):.

"‘They make yearly migrations from one part of the country to another, reversing in this respect, the ordinary course of birds of passage. During the winter, they go north, in order to obtain shelter of the woods against the severity of the winter, while on the approach of summer, they proceed to the open plain to the south.’

"The missionaries, who first arrived among the Canadian plains people in the second decade of the nineteenth century, located their missions among the buffalo hunting Indians and métis (half-breeds) in the parkland zone of the Prairie Provinces. Just as at the Company’s posts, the missionaries at these locations were best assured of a dependable supply of buffalo products for their perambulating Indian and métis parishioners. One of the most experienced missionaries in this field was the Reverend John McDougall, who summarized buffalo movements on the Canadian plains as follows: ‘It is still hard for the inexperienced to understand, that, the colder the weather and harder the winter, the further into the north did the great herds feed; but all through the sixties and seventies this was my knowledge of them.’ (1911:26).

"December through March was the time, when the buffalo were most numerous in the northern parklands. For example, James Bird, the Hudson’s Bay Company officer in charge of the Edmonton District, reported in 1815 that ‘At Paint River (Vermilion River) the Buffalo are generally near from December till March, and then no difficulty is found in procuring meat. It sometimes happens, however, that at both Settlements (i.e. Edmonton and Paint River), we are obliged, to have recourse to dry Provisions, brought us by the Natives...’ (H.B.C., 1815:3d). Thus, while noting the regularity, with which the buffalo appeared at these parkland posts, Bird also acknowledged occasional departures from this norm." Moodie and Kay (1976:48)


Why they were moving around

"The details of this general movement in and out of the parkland fringe of the northern plains were strongly influenced by a variety of physical and cultural factors, the most important of which were winter temperature conditions, snow conditions, fires and hunting pressures. The pattern was most pronouncedly upset by mild winters, when temperatures were not sufficiently extreme, to force the animals into the shelter of the bordering parklands. During exceptional winters of this nature, the buffalo remained in the grassland, sometimes at great distances from the wooded country.

"In 1827, for example, it was reported from Carlton House on the North Saskatchewan River that, ‘... as the Winter ... proved uncommonly Mild with little Snow, the Buffalo never advanced towards the Woods, and on which account all the Indians of this Post suffered much from Starvation.’ (H.B.C.,1827:1). Mild winters, in consequence, brought extreme hardship to the inhabitants of the parkland, and the journals and letters of missionaries and traders, resident in this zone, is replete with descriptions of the effect of mild winters upon the normal movement of the buffalo. The winter of 1800-1801, for example, was exceptionally mild in the Swan River district, which the North West Company trader, stationed at Fort Alexandria on the Assinoboine River, did not view as a blessing: "As is noted above, snow also affected the normal patterns of buffalo movement. Very little snow, in the absence of extreme winter temperatures, caused the buffalo, to remain on the open plains. This effect was well described by the resident missionary at Fort Edmonton during the winter of 1863-1864." Moodie and Kay (1976:49, 50)

Frank Gilbert Roe states in his book, The North American Buffalo. A Critical Study of the Species in its Wild State, University of Toronto Press 1970, about the bison, changing its hair coat: "Like most of the hairy-coated or fur-bearing species, inhabiting principally the temperate zones, with their radical changes of season twice a year, the buffalo shed their coats towards spring-time. ... Unlike many of our domesticated animals, such as cattle and horses, whose new spring coat ‘forces’ the old winter hair out, so that the shedding of the one and the appearance of the other may be classed as one operation, it would appear, that in the case of the buffalo, there was a distinct interval of a few weeks, during which time they were literally naked. Unfortunately for them, this was the precise time, when mosquitos and all the various species of winged pests, indigenous to the North American continent, were at their worst." Roe, F. G. (1970:99, 100) 


What is a blizzard? How is the bison able, to survive in winter the blizzard on the Great Plains?

F. G. Roe: "The non-Western reader may not be aware, that, although the term is often so used, a ‘blizzard’ is not properly a storm of falling snow. It is a snow wind-storm, only possible on open plains, and often occurring under a cloudless sky. The intense cold and the violence of the wind, which swirls around seemingly from all quarters, cause one, to turn this way and that for breath, until all sense of direction is often lost. When experienced residents of the plains perceive a blizzard coming, they very commonly stretch a line between house and barn, since the storm will often last three days and nights; lacking such a line between house and barn, many persons have been lost and frozen to death within 200 yards or less of their own doors. ... The region north of the Missouri River is the very home of the blizzard." (1970:185, Fn.)

Searching in winter in snow for food

How does the bison in winter get at its food, when the drifted snow is very hard?

"John Palliser (1863) writes: ‘I have killed many fat buffaloes in the months of January and February, after which I have invariably found them lean, and sometimes seen the ground sprinkled with blood from the hardness of the surface, which the animal tries to shovel aside with its nose. If even the buffalo, whose nose is formed by nature for this purpose, finds a difficulty, in obtaining his food, how much more difficult for [domestic animals].’" Roe, F. G. (1970:201)