Bison a risk on public land?

It was neither a good day, nor a good way to die, if, indeed, such fanciful days and ways even exist.

It was neither a good day, nor a good way to die, if, indeed, such fanciful days and ways even exist.

It was Sunday, Aug. 2, and Keith Conrad was out for his habitual early morning walk, this time on a gravelled road allowance maintained by Shell that runs through a grazing lease on public land about 30 km south west of Pincher Creek. The man passed over a Texas gate then, according to Pincher Creek RCMP, tracks show he eventually walked up to five meters behind two bison, one of which turned, charged, and gored Conrad to death.

Not a good way to die on any day, ranking up there with being charged, mauled and eaten alive by a grizzly. But these bison, technically, and in law, were not wild animals; they were livestock, allegedly domesticated, ranched animals.

The horror of Conrad’s death is made worse for me because he was about my age, and was admitted to the bar in Alberta about the same time I was. The few professional contacts with him left me regarding him as a true gentleman.

Whether Conrad had or even knew he might need permission from the leaseholder to be on that public land is as unknown as whether he knew that bison were at large on it; there may have been “Cattle at Large” signs.

Far more fanciful, even dubious, than such concepts as good days or ways to die is the process by which domesticated, or ranched bison now come to be on some Alberta public land grazing leases in the first place.

In Aprils, 2005, Larry Simpson of the Nature Conservancy of Canada asked Darrel Rowledge of Calgary, President, Alliance for Public Wildlife, if he would be willing to serve as an advocate for public wildlife in Edmonton later that month at a “Bison Confinement/Wildlife Permeability” workshop. Rowledge agreed, and later received a formal invitation.

Darrel Rowledge is an advocate for public rights over and a say in public assets, including public land and wildlife.

Always duly diligent, he immediately consulted some respected scientists about fencing that will keep bison in while being permeable to and let wildlife in: moose, elk, deer, etc.

Rowledge got useful fencing material from the scientists, but all of them expressed serious reservations about the wisdom of allowing or encouraging commercial bison on public land in the first place. The concerns ranged from serious threats of disease and parasites and habitat fragmentation, extension of the policy to other game farm species, and particularly to matters of, public access and public safety.

In that latter respect, the scientists pointed out that Yellowstone Park now experiences about 20 times more attacks on humans from bison than from its large bear population, including grizzlies.

A concern for some of the scientists, and also for Rowledge, is that the destruction of the wild bison genome, by which they have evolved their evil tempers to survive wolves and grizzlies, should not be allowed on public land. The bison breeders desire more docile animals, less hump and more rump.

About a week before the workshop, Rowledge was informed by its facilitator, Dr. Cormack Gates of the University of Calgary, that the bison producers would not allow Rowledge’s participation in the workshop, giving no particular reason, but would not participate themselves if he did, and the workshop would have to be cancelled.

Suffice, on the advice of the scientists again, Rowledge, was not willing to withdraw, but was willing to participate on the narrow issue of fencing if he and other participants could include a caveat in the record that expressed their concerns, including the public safety issue and, that their participation must not be construed as support for a policy allowing commercial bison on public lands grazing dispositions.

Apparently that was not good enough for the herd bulls of bisonry, including some in government. The day before the workshop Rowledge received an email from Keith Lyseng, executive director, rangeland development, Alberta Sustainable Resource Development, retracting his invitation for Rowledge to participate in the workshop.

The result of a manipulated public process dictated largely by a party with a vested interest, is that the decision to put commercial bison on public land in the first place has been made without consideration of the real issues, including public safety.

As a side issue, the owner, who was doing what his government allowed, says the two bison are to be “put down.”

The tender-hearted and marshmallow-minded among us will object that the beasts were just being bison and at worst should be confined, but on private land.

For Keith Conrad and his grieving family, that awful day and way he died came just four years after the decision was made to put bison on public land by refusing to hear the real issues, including public safety.

We have probably not heard the last of this: perhaps even in a forum where all the evidence and arguments are heard before a decision is made.

Bob Scammell is an award-winning outdoors writer living in Red Deer.

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