The largest land mammal in North America, the wood bison – commonly called the wood buffalo – is the longer-legged, darker and more robust relative of the plains bison. Like the plains bison, the wood bison were mercilessly hunted to the brink of extinction by the 1890s, which helped prompt the creation of Wood Buffalo National Park in 1922. Soon after its designation, local herds were bolstered in a dubious way by the introduction of some six thousand plains bison. As a result, some of the bison in Wood Buffalo National Park today show traits of plains bison, but an even more contentious consequence was the spread of tuberculosis and brucellosis – already rampant in the plains herd – to animals throughout the park. This has created a long-simmering row between conservationists and Alberta’s beef lobby, with some asserting the only way to prevent the spread of the diseases (which they claim are highly infectious) to elk and to Alberta’s valuable beef herds is to kill all the bison off. Those opposed to this plan point out the herd has been infected since the 1920s, yet the disease has survived by internal regulation and natural balance, with animals showing few outward signs of the diseases or of suffering. Furthermore, there has never been an instance of those diseases transferring to humans. Most locals, who are largely opposed to the cull, argue that killing or inoculating every animal would be a daunting task, given the immensity of the animals’ range.
The two disease-free northern herds – that range around the Mackenzie Bison Sanctuary (which surrounds much of Hwy-3 to Yellowknife) and the Liard Hwy near Fort Simpson – are kept that way by constant vigilance in a bison no-go area: any bison found here, disease free or not, are shot. Meanwhile, as a long-term management solution is debated, the park’s buffalo – now around five thousand – continue to nibble contentedly.