A glimpse of field work in the "Land of the Living Skies"

Picture1Article requested by the Center for Forest Research/Centre d’étude de la fôret.

Published on 06 August 2013, the following piece details some of the highlights of bison research in Prince Albert National Park.

The original publication does not have a unique URL, but can be viewed on the CFR/CEF website as part of a running list of invited articles authored by CEF members.

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A glimpse of field work in the “Land of the Living Skies”

Text and photos by Bethann & Jerod Merkle

Field work in Prince Albert National Park (PANP) can be summed up in three words – insects, thunderstorms, and bison. Often, the day starts with cool temperatures and a 17 km bike ride through mud and thick clouds of mosquitoes. By late afternoon, you’re likely to be drenched by a powerful but short-lived storm. Between the two, you might see sand hill cranes, more than a dozen species of ducks, bison basking in the sun, and frogs so thick the forest floor jumps beneath your feet.

Studying Canada’s only free-ranging plains bison herd still found within their historic range is an ecological treasure hunt that has lasted decades. It began back in 1969, when some bison were released north of the park as an additional natural food source for First Nations hunters. As the bison dispersed, a small group worked their way south into PANP, and established themselves in the park’s southwestern corner. The area where the bison spend their time is dominated by aspen parkland, with agricultural fields to the west, and boreal forest in the north. Meadows carved by glaciers dot the landscape, providing the forage bison need to persist.

Over the years, the population slowly grew, and in 1995, a bison research program was initiated. Early studies identified what these bison eat and why and better described their numbers and distribution. The population continued to grow, peaking around 500 individuals in mid-2000s, and current estimates hover around 250 animals. More recently, work has focused on other aspects of this herd’s ecology, including predator-prey interactions, population dynamics, human-bison conflicts, and sociality.

In general, our field work involves finding and observing bison. Bison spend the majority of their time in meadows, which only comprise about 5% of the landscape. We therefore spend most of our time moving through thick aspen forest between different meadows. While doing so, we face two unavoidable aspects of the forest that make our job no “walk in the park.”

The first is water. PANP’s underlying geology means water has no place to go. Although central Saskatchewan receives less than 45 cm of precipitation a year, much of that sits above ground in lakes, bogs, swamps and sloughs. It is possible to wander for hours in a maze of wetlands without finding dry ground.

Second is the bush itself. Somehow, despite the arid climate, 3 canopy layers are common. The lower layer, comprised of grasses and forbs, is quite easy to deal with. The upper layer of quaking aspen or conifers provides nice shade during hot days. But, in between these layers is the bush. Thick willows can slow us down to almost a creep. Pushing our way through 1 to 3 meter tall hazelnut  can drive us crazy, and even make us walk in circles.

To some, the task of thrashing through the forest to find meadows might seem monotonous, terrible, and even boring. But, to others, trying to move quietly while approaching meadows, and peering through the bush at the day’s inhabitants, is pure adventure. As we approach, our observations offer clues about what we are about to see. Fresh wolf tracks, steaming bison dung, squawking sandhill cranes, and the occasional soothing grunts of female bison all provide hints. Even after a promising lead-up, sometimes the meadow is empty, and all we notice are thick swarms of mosquitoes and tall grasses waving in the breeze. We will double check, scanning the meadow’s edges with binoculars, then concede the meadow is empty and move on to the next meadow, where the adventure happens all over again.

When we do find bison, wind direction, a good hiding spot, and whether or not the herd is calm are all key considerations. The objective is to count them, record the age and sex ratios, monitor behaviour, and take pictures of as many adults’ faces as possible – these mug shots are later used to identify individuals. Sometimes, this entails rapid-fire camera action. On other days, we must summon hours and hours of patience while the bison lounge in the sun, chewing their cuds, inevitably facing away from the camera.

In cases like that, it’s what happens when we’re counting animals that make slogging through the muck and mosquitoes worthwhile. Sitting there, silently watching bison, we see lots of other wildlife pass by. Moose, deer and elk appear out of the bush alongside us, and sometimes never notice we’re there. The other day, as we tried to creep up behind a bison, we heard a rhythmic “crunch, crunch, crunch” in the leaves behind us. Wondering if it was a bear, a deer, or what, we slowly glanced over our shoulders. A pine marten bounded out of the shadows, continued past us without even glancing our way, and proceeded straight out into the meadow, nearly underneath the nose of the bison we were after. Based on two more sightings in the same general area, we have concluded this marten is a resident. Also in the understory, the squirrels here seem to be on the same page as their city-dwelling cousins. While we don’t see a lot of them, they are curious and have no qualms about slinking up, trying to share our lunches.

It is usually right around lunch time that spectacular clouds start forming. Although the region is characterized by sunny skies and dry air, Saskatchewan is “the land of the living skies.” When the Rocky Mountains to the west kindly leave us some atmospheric moisture, those sunny days are ingredients for beautiful and sometimes violent weather. Thirty minutes after sweltering in the sun, we’ve been freezing cold, huddled soaking wet under a black spruce surrounded by a mound of hail. We’ve woken up in the middle of the night with no electricity, while a thunder and lightning show lights up and shakes our cabin for what seems like hours. The following mornings reveal thick patches of mystic fog in the meadows and hundreds of weak aspen trees fallen over our trails.

Perhaps the most notable aspect of our work here is what is not here. There is a warden at the field station where we are based, and just across the river is private property. However, the local farmers and ranchers rarely recreate in the park, and most of the tourist traffic is concentrated around the large lakes on the east side of the park. We see occasional mountain bikers and horseback riders, but a busy week would be a handful of people. Aside from the regular inhabitants of this humming, bounding, vibrant ecosystem, we are almost entirely alone.

FOOTNOTES
  1. Daniel Fortin has been involved with the research on the bison in PANP since 1995. He is a professor in the Département de Biologie and the NSERC-Université Laval Industrial Research Chair in Silviculture and Wildlife. Under his advisement, Léa Harvey (M.Sc. 2013), Sabrina Courant (Ph.D. 2012), Karine Dancose (M.Sc. 2010), Jean-Sébastien Babin (M.Sc. 2009), and Marie-Ève Fortin (M.Sc. 2007) have all obtained degrees while studying bison in PANP.
  2. Two Ph.D. students in the Département de Biologie, directed by Daniel, are currently working on the project: Marie Sigaud and Jerod Merkle. Marie seeks to better understand the mechanisms and consequences involved with wild animals frequenting anthropogenic landscapes. Her field work takes place in autumn when bison have a tendency to leave PANP and forage on agricultural lands adjacent to the park.Jerod studies the link between population dynamics and animal space use, particularly as it relates to range expansion. His field work involves monitoring population dynamics of bison using photography and field-based observation. This summer, his wife joined him as a field assistant, as she has on his previous research projects.
  3. Bethann is a writer, photographer and communications consultant whose work focuses on ecology and science communication. The Merkles also maintain a blog about their field work and other adventures.

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