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Bison at home in northern village

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FORT LIARD, Northwest Territories - Sometimes a story is so evident that
the topic jumps right out. With this article, the topic almost got hit.

When turning in to a campground at 3 a.m. several pairs of eyes stared back
at the car's headlights. The total darkness created by the absence of
street lights camouflaged a herd of bison. Watching them pass by just yards
away was heart stopping.

For visitors the bison are a spectacle, but the residents of the hamlet of
Fort Liard have become complacent with these animals. The bison were
reintroduced into this area of the Northwest Territories (N.W.T.) and
they've had free reign in the town for more than 20 years. With protected
status and without predators the herd has grown to more than 200, or about
one animal for every three people.

Five feet at the shoulders and weighing up to a ton, these wood bison have
grown so accustomed to people they have almost become docile. Still, it's
best to respect a certain distance and the townsfolk know that.

The animals' passivity doesn't mean they haven't been a disturbance. The
presence of these bison has been deemed by some as a nuisance.

Elder and town councilor Joe Bertrand explained that for the Acho Dene Koe
First Nation bison are of little significance, even if they are revered
elsewhere in Indian country.

"We don't have a culture because we never used them," Bertrand said as his
answer was translated from the dialect of South Slavey.

Instead of buffalo, the Dene hunted moose for its meat and hides.
Historically bison did inhabit the area but they were hunted out long
enough ago that the elders have neither a recollection of them being there
nor stories from their elders.

The bison were reintroduced into the valley in 1980 when 28 were
transplanted from Alberta by the N.W.T. government. Though deposited in
Nahanni Butte, the animals crossed the nearby Liard River and have wandered
around a larger geographical region since.

Bertrand claims problems occur when moose and bison share the same
territory. While these two species don't compete for feeding grounds or
vegetation, Bertrand believes the moose have become scarcer because they're
hiding deeper in the forest.

"The moose used to hang out around the river but since the buffalo came,
the moose could smell them and have hidden into the bush," the elder said.

More probably the moose have retreated because they are solitary animals in
small groups whereas the bison are more often found in herds. Technician
Danny Allaire of the Resources, Wildlife and Economic Development (RWED)
department of the territorial government concurs with this theory.

"During our survey we saw bison on one island and moose on the other,
[when] they are in close proximity," said Allaire, noting the bison are
more visible because they congregate along the water.

It's unlikely the Dene will convert their hunting habits in the near future
because there are only two tags available annually. Also, the local First
Nation prefers the taste of moose and its hide is easier to tan.

There is also the fear of the bison containing anthrax; a partial truth
that has been taken out of context. While many buffalo contain the disease
in Wood Buffalo National Park in the eastern region of the N.W.T., both the
Liard River Valley herd and the animals in the Mackenzie Bison Sanctuary
are healthy. There is also a Bison Control Area separating the three
regions and animals found there are immediately killed to avoid spreading
anthrax.

"When an animal dies of any suspicious means, the biologists are down here
fast doing a postmortem and will be checking for everything because they
want disease-free animals," said Ross Hagen, a Renewable Resources officer
with RWED in Fort Liard.

Anthrax spores are found in the soil where the animals roll around. Any
meat from a tainted animal is bad and though the disease can be passed on
to humans, no deaths or illnesses have ever been diagnosed in the N.W.T.

To combat local fears, educational programs are being implemented such as
last winter's first bison hunt by Fort Liard's school children. Under a
well-supervised and highly-regulated program that included a watchful eye
by RWED, a bull was hunted and its meat distributed.

"When we killed the buffalo for the hunt, the biologists took samples of
the kidney, liver, parts of the brain and blood and it came back very
healthy, so apparently they are liking the land," said Tammy Neal,
executive director of the Acho Dene Koe.

Even if more tags became available, Bertrand said hunting would still be
minimal because there wouldn't be a challenge.

"With moose you have to go out on traditional lands to hunt them but with
buffalo, they're so convenient as they come into the community, nobody
wants to shoot them," he said of the animals that have lost their fear of
humans.

The bison have also chosen the airport as a preferred site and every now
and then they have to be persuaded to leave the runway.

So for now, the worst the bison have done is some minor property damage
like rolling in the dirt of vegetable gardens.

Hagan, who oversees the control of the herd, summarized the laissez-faire
attitude many villagers have adopted about these creatures.

"Sometimes you don't realize how big the animals are until you're sitting
at home watching TV and there's this hump that walks past your picture
window," Hagen said with a smirk.