The People of America's Oil and Natural Gas Indusry

Where the Buffalo Roam

Jane Van Ryan

Jane Van Ryan
Posted August 12, 2009

So you mine the oil sands, extract the oil, reclaim the land--and then what do you do? At the Syncrude oil sands operation in Alberta, you start a bison ranch--wood bison, to be specific.

Approximately 300 of these big, shaggy mammals live on nearly 1,730 acres of reclaimed land that used to be an oil sands mine. Today the former mine comprises several pastures where the bison graze and rid themselves of insects by rolling in the dirt or rubbing against scratching posts. They live a good life with plenty of food and water, and with freedom from the diseases that are threatening the existence of the species.


According to Syncrude's environmental managers, Canada's wild wood bison herd is suffering from tuberculosis and anthrax--deadly diseases that could lead to extinction. To ensure the long-term survival of the wood bison, Syncrude and the Fort McKay First Nation formed a partnership to preserve the species. The animals at the ranch are healthy and disease-free. Every year about 100 calves are born into the herd, and 100 bison are sold to ensure the herd doesn't outgrow the food supply. In 2007, the bison at this ranch received several major livestock awards at various competitions.

The ranch has proven that it's possible to raise large undulates on reclaimed land, but it's also becoming a center for research. Scientists from the Universities of Calgary and Saskatchewan as well as several government agencies are working on a project involving the collection and study of genetic materials related to reproductive biology.

I assume the scientists gather genetic material by getting up close and personal with the bison. As visitors, we didn't get that chance. A very large bull with a massive head and sharp horns decided he didn't want to share his pasture with us. He and a slightly smaller colleague walked briskly toward us, shaking their heads in a rather threatening manner. Fortunately, we were close to our vehicles and climbed inside to safety.

Some final thoughts on the oil sands tour tomorrow.