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Following the footsteps of bison

By Mark Edwards, Curator, Mammalogy

August 14, 2020

For several years, RAM and the University of Alberta have conducted research on wood bison in northeastern Alberta for the Ronald Lake Bison Herd Technical Team. The Technical Team is a collaborative initiative between Indigenous communities with connection to the Ronald Lake bison herd, Government of Alberta, industry representatives, and the Government of Canada. 2020 marks the last year of a 5-year study investigating the ecology of wood bison in the Ronald Lake area of northeastern Alberta.

Through this research, we learned some interesting things about wood bison! For one, we noticed that bison move to different land cover types depending on the season –  from predominantly marshes in winter, to more general use of the available land cover types in summer. In winter, bison dig through deep snow to forage small patches of plants to eat. Other studies typically show bison as grazers of grasses and sedges, but we are finding that the Ronald Lake bison consume more woody plants, like prickly rose, red-osier dogwood, and Saskatoon. Finally, of the three wolf packs we are monitoring, we found that two include bison in their winter diet. Winter wolf diets also include deer and moose, while in summer they mostly hunt beaver. All of these findings give us a greater understanding of wood bison ecology, and the more we know about these creatures, the better we can sustainably manage the herd in the future.

Due to COVID-19, the Ronald Lake Bison Herd Technical Team had to postpone its May 2020 meeting. An important goal of that meeting was for community members to learn directly from the researchers about the work they are doing in Indigenous traditional territories, this past winter and during the summer. Instead, the Technical Team created a series of videos in which the researchers discuss their work and passions. 

1. This video shares research that improves our understanding of how bison use different areas on the land, including areas affected by human activity, by counting scat (i.e., poop) in different land cover types.


2. This video takes an in-depth look at the importance of wetlands in winter when food is scarce. For this, the researchers visited sites used by bison to measure evidence of their foraging behaviour, relative to factors such as forage availability and type, snow characteristics, water, and substrate.


3. This video talks about how we are measuring the quantity and quality of bison foods by visiting sites used by bison, recording landscape characteristics and collecting a sample of the plants eaten, which we analyze in the lab, to see how this influences their selection of different cover types over the year. 

4. This video explores how predators influence bison habitat use. For this, we examined what influence wolves have on the bison, by monitoring wolf movement using GPS technology relative to the bison, and by visiting their kill sites and analyzing their diet from collected scat.


Results of this study can be used by Indigenous community members, wildlife managers and land use planners to support the long-term viability of the Ronald Lake Bison Herd.