Bison return to Batoche

Lukas Kloeppel/ Last year in November, Métis Nation-Saskatchewan signed a memorandum of understanding with Parks Canada to transfer 25 bison from Grasslands National Park, in southwestern Saskatchewan, to MN–S lands near Batoche National Historic Site north of Saskatoon, to establish a new herd.

by Carol Baldwin
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Wakaw Recorder

The bison have returned to Batoche.

Glen McCallum, President of Metis Nation-Saskatchewan shared that ever since the signing of the government-to-government agreements with Canada, and they established the Métis footprint in this province, Métis Nation-Saskatchewan has worked to see this day become a reality. Batoche National Historic Site representatives shared that they were excited to be part of the collaboration between Parks Canada and the Métis Nation-Saskatchewan that saw bison return to the Métis Nation-Saskatchewan lands near Batoche.

MN-S President Glen McCallum speaks during Back to Batoche in 2019.

The village of Batoche was established in 1872 when Xavier Letendre opened a ferry crossing and built a store. While the Métis are commonly known as buffalo-hunters, they were also adapting to the disappearance of the buffalo by turning to farming and approximately fifty family river lots were farmed at Batoche prior to the Resistance of 1885. The introduction of this young herd of bison has touched the hearts of souls of the Métis people everywhere especially those who still reside in the area close to Batoche.

Last year in November, Métis Nation-Saskatchewan signed a memorandum of understanding with Parks Canada to transfer 25 bison from Grasslands National Park, in southwestern Saskatchewan, to MN–S lands near Batoche National Historic Site north of Saskatoon, to establish a new herd. The Grasslands bison herd, which was established in 2005 has grown to over 400 animals and is now used to establish new herds, according to Parks Canada.

All of Canada’s plains bison conservation herds originated in Elk Island National Park because of their high genetic diversity and long history of disease-free status. Supporting the translocation of disease-free plains bison has been an important part of Elk Island National Park’s mission for more than a century. In 2005, Grasslands National Park received 71 bison from Elk Island National Park, after a 120-year absence from the landscape.

The initial herd consisted of 30 male calves, 30 female calves, and 11 yearlings. Grasslands National Park continues to be home to a managed population of genetically healthy plains bison. As a managed herd, Park Canada staff at Grasslands National Park accepts requests from interested Indigenous communities and conservation projects to acquire bison.

Requests may be fully or partially fulfilled, depending on the availability of surplus bison (for each sex and age class) identified to manage the population. Any requests that cannot be met in a given year may be re-directed to future years or other Parks Canada sites that may have surplus bison, including Elk Island National Park.

According to Samantha Grant, Resource Conservation Manager at Grasslands, who led the team taking care of the bison and helping with the transfer, the request for bison was made in the summer of 2022. The MOU to work together to make the transfer happen was signed in November one year ago. The initial handling of the bison occurred a few weeks before the transfer and that entailed moving the bison through Grasslands’ handling facility, taking genetic samples to keep track of all the individuals, and noting how many females, how many males, and their relative ages. Then there was the discussion about how many were to be transferred, what the composition of the transfer group was to be, and which animals were selected to be in that group. Those animals were then separated from the rest of the group in preparation for the transfer. 

The morning of December 7 the young bison were loaded into two trailers and the trek to their new home at Batoche began. The collaboration between the two teams, Parks Canada and MN-S, was vital in making the transfer possible, from all the paperwork that was necessary to the building of the facilities at Batoche to the actual transportation of the bison from Grasslands, the two teams worked together to make it all happen.

A ground blessing ceremony was held on Wednesday, Dec. 6 at the location of the newly constructed paddocks which the bison will call home. The following day MN-S posted an update on their social media announcing that the exciting day had finally arrived. They also asked for patience and understanding of the fact that visiting the bison in their new home is currently not allowed.

“It’s our responsibility to protect and care for the animals by prioritizing their well-being and giving them the time and space, they need to adjust to their new home. Respecting [the] needs of the bison during this transition is key [to] ensuring a smooth and comfortable settling process.”

Li bufflo as they are called by the Métis in Michif, need to come to learn this new environment, this new territory as their home range. Experts say that as young animals they learn not only who their herd mates are, but also where their home territory is, they learn its scents and its sounds. That home then becomes where they want to remain and where they feel safe. Hence for them to settle in and accept this new space as home, they need the privacy that MN-S has requested of the public.

The return of the bison holds “enormous cultural significance” to Métis people. Hunting bison in the early days of the fur trade “allowed Métis people to develop land-based skills that are in practice today for many Métis families and provide economic stability,” MN-S said.

Eventually, the herd will be relocated to a portion of the 690 hectares of land situated on the west side of the Batoche National Historic Site that was transferred from Parks Canada to MN–S in July 2022. The return of bison to Batoche is the first step in the long-term vision of MN–S to grow the herd and explore the economic development potential that the herd could bring to the region. As stewards of the land, MN–S will also look at the educational opportunities that will be developed with youth, Elders, and community in mind. 

“Our youth will see a tangible demonstration of Métis tradition and values as our Elders help provide invaluable land-based education. Together, we will bear witness to the growth of the herd as it reclaims the land and allows our Métis Nation government to explore the opportunities presented to us,” MN-S vice-president Michelle LeClair said in a news release.

The transfer of the bison is just the latest in a number of steps taken on the path of reconciliation between the federal government, Parks Canada, and Métis Nation-Saskatchewan. In 1996, the Back to Batoche festival grounds adjacent to Batoche National Historic Site were transferred to Métis ownership and are now owned and managed by MN–S. In December 2020, Parks Canada and MN–S agreed to explore and discuss a full range of options related to the future management of Batoche National Historic Site under the Framework Agreement for Advancing Reconciliation. The two parties signed the Framework Agreement on July 20, 2018, through the Recognition of Indigenous Rights and Self-Determination process. In July 2022, Parks Canada transferred approximately 690 hectares of land situated on the west side of Batoche National Historic Site to the citizens of MN–S. Then in November 2022, the Memorandum of Understanding was signed between Parks Canada and MN–S to facilitate the bison transfer. Phase one of the Memorandum of Understanding involves the reintegration of bison to the Back to Batoche festival grounds near Batoche National Historic Site. Phase two will place the growing herd on a portion of the 690-hectare West Side lands. 

The Honourable Steven Guilbeault, Minister of Environment and Climate Change and Minister responsible for Parks Canada issued the following statement regarding the reintegration of the bison to Batoche.

“The bison, a symbol of strength and resilience, is not only a keystone species but also a vital part of the lives of Indigenous peoples. By supporting the Métis Nation–Saskatchewan in returning bison to the landscape of Batoche, the Government of Canada is helping with this transfer that will help renew cultural, historical, and spiritual connections. This is a tangible example of the Government of Canada’s commitment to advancing reconciliation with Métis.” 

Individuals present for this monumental event included representatives from Parks Canada, Métis Nation-Saskatchewan, Batoche Homeland Métis Local #51, and local elders.

Jason McKay, aka The Wandering Métis, shared his experience on Facebook: “It was very powerful and moving to hear the 25 bison gallop out of the trailers and hit the ground running. After finding their place in the pen, they began to find their pecking order. They’re reclaiming the land where they used to roam free, and our people followed them. As Métis people, we too are reclaiming our heritage and culture one piece at a time.” 

Batoche Homeland Métis Local #51 also shared their thoughts on what the events of Dec. 7 meant.

“The return of the Buffalo to the land will benefit all in so many ways! The buffalo hold great significance to the Métis community with deep cultural and historical importance, symbolizing resilience, connection to land, and sustenance for our ancestors. Their return represents a restoration of our heritage and a renewed relationship with the land. It’s a powerful symbol of MN-S’s ongoing connection to our Métis roots and the commitment that MN-S and all of us have for preserving our traditions.”