Two wood bison calves feed in a corral at Elk Island National Park

Two wood bison calves feed in a corral at Elk Island National Park

Whispering at bison

Ivan Smith chuckles at the suggestion he’s a bison whisperer.

Ivan Smith chuckles at the suggestion he’s a bison whisperer.

But he doesn’t deny it.

“I guess what I like about that is I think it shows that I understand the animals … that I’m very good at reading their body language.”

In 1998, when his first bison came off the truck he knew almost nothing about the towering animals with an almost mystical aura about them.

“It was just sort of a fear, then instant love right at the same time.

“It transformed my life. Everything I’ve done since 1998 has been all about the bison.

“They’ve looked after me, and in turn, I feel that I have put that back into the herd.” That putting back has covered everything from giving other producers some friendly advice or offering a helping hand in person.

Smith has become the go-to guy for bison. He fields 70 phone calls a day from people wanting to know about the meat, or looking for or selling breeding stock, or for just about any other piece of bison-related information you can think of.

On top of that, Smith figures he helps move about 10,000 bison a year around Alberta farms and ranches, as well as manage his own herd of 350.

“There’s probably not a single week where I haven’t moved a bison from one place to another or cut one out because it doesn’t look right or they want to butcher it.”

This past weekend he was working with four different producers to move their bison.

His herd was as high as 2,100 until he scaled back a short while ago to concentrate on some of his other pursuits, including ownership of Red Deer’s two Big Bend Markets, which carry a wide range of organic meats including bison, chicken, pork, beef, lamb, elk and venison as well as numerous sauces, dips and other meal enhancers. He also has an interest in two Cities Gastro Pubs in Red Deer and Sylvan Lake.

The most requested dish? Bison rib eye.

He also has his finger in a pair of Internet-related businesses.

As imposing and imperturbable as they seem, bison are easily stressed and require knowledgeable handling.

Keeping them in family groups, understanding their fear of confined spaces and getting to know how a bison thinks really goes a long way to improving the animals’ quality of life, he said.

“I guess a million years of roaming the prairies with no confinement I can understand why it’s a foreign concept to them and causes a lot of panic,” he said.

Even the smallest of behavioural tendencies can be important. For instance, for whatever reason bison like to turn counter clockwise. When designing a system to contain them it helps to keep that in mind.

He admits he has no idea why they turn that way. “And I don’t know if in Australia they turn the other way,” he said with a laugh. He’s also heard that when a bison gets out of the pasture and is disoriented it will head northwest. He can’t explain that either, but has found if any get out of his Penhold-area property they always seem to head north. He also keeps bison on leased land in the Rocky Mountain House, Sundre and Lacombe areas.

Bison aren’t like other livestock, he said.

“You can herd them, but it’s really like trying to herd a flock of birds. You just have to follow their lead and react accordingly.

“They’re like a high-speed cow. It’s not they’re dangerous, it’s just they’re so athletic.”

Millennia of facing storms and other threats have taught bison to run first, and if that doesn’t work, stand their ground.

Smith, who was recently made vice-chairman of the Alberta Bison Association, clearly lives for bison and his enthusiasm is infectious.

“I’ve always never really known what I wanted to do with my life. That’s one thing where no matter what I do they will be part of my life. I know that, without a doubt.”

Even if bison weren’t his bread and butter he would help out other ranchers.

“I just love to work with the animals. I love to get in there and be close to them. I guess you feel the rusk of herds pound by as they run past you.

He has spent hours sitting in his pickup watching and listening to the bison as they wander the pasture. Since he has gotten bison he has even attracted a new species of bird, attracted to the flies that hover around them.

There’s not a bird’s nest within miles that isn’t lined with bison fur.

“So they’re really a great fit with the land and I’d like to see a lot more farms converted to bison actually because they’ve evolved to be here.

“I don’t see why we need to fight it with conventional farming when we have an animal that naturally fits.”

pcowley@bprda.wpengine.com

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