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For thousands of years, Plains Indians relied on the buffalo for their livlihood - clothes, shelter, and food the buffalo provided them all.
When Europeans arrived in North America there were an estimated 60 million buffalo - or plains bison as they are also called - roaming across the prairies.
The decline of the bison took place between the time of the arrival of Europeans and 1877, when protective legislation was passed to save the few hundred buffalo that were left in Canada.
Since then public parks like the Elk Island National Park in Alberta, Prince Albert National Park in Saskatchewan, Riding Mountain Park in Manitoba and Wood Buffalo National Park in the Northwest Territories - have become havens for buffalo and their numbers have increased dramatically.
There are as many as 60,000 plains buffalo in North America today - in public and private herds.
In Canada about 10,000 buffalo live on privately owned buffalo ranches, like the one being developed on the Waterhen Lake Reserve near Meadow Lake.
If everything goes according to schedule, the Waterhen Lake Band will be in the buffalo business early this summer.
Waterhen Bison Enterprises Inc., is a subsidiary of the band's development company - Waterhen Lake Band Enterprises Ltd.
Three years ago the band started looking into wild game farming on the reserve.
Waterhen Lake Chief Fred Martell says that the band decided on wild game over cattle because bison, elk and deer don't require as much land or as much care as cattle.
Initially the band considered a multi-species ranch, with fallow deer, wapiti elk and plains bison. However after a feasibility study was carried out the band decided to start with just plains bison.
Buffalo are the largest of the wild game species that are raised on ranches.
Bulls can weigh as much as 2,000 pounds, while the cows weigh between 800 and 1,000 pounds.
In comparison, elk bulls have an average weight of 775 pounds and cows weigh about 600 pounds.
Both elk and buffalo are well suited to the climatic conditions in Western Canada; however, elk are not as well adapted to open-range conditions and may need some form of artificial shelter in winter, especially where there is no available bush cover.
Buffalo on the other hand, need no artificial shelter and prefer to stand in the open, facing the wind during winter storms.
In terms of daily handling, buffalo need less attention than elk or deer. If they are given sufficient browsing area, they can get along fine with very little help-even when they are calving.
In fact, reports indicate that buffalo are 100% maintenance-free when giving birth and are likely to run an overly-interested rancher out of the pasture.
In terms of legislation, bison are simpler to deal with than other wild game species.
Bison are considered to be domestic animals so there are fewer legislative obstacles to observe when dealing with buffalo, compared to elk and deer which are regulated by a variety of provincial wildlife acts.
Buffalo stock can be obtained from established farmers in the United States and Canada and from public sources like the Elk Island National Park, which holds public auctions every year.
The Waterhen Band has already purchased 45 buffalo from the Elk Island National Park.
The band owns 20 yearling females, 20 two year old females and five bred cows, which are in a feedlot in Edmonton waiting to come to Saskatchewan.
In order to be ready to receive their buffalo, the band has to do some expensive fencing this spring.
According to SIAP extension worker Erland Sten, the cost to the Band of fencing one section (640 acres) of buffalo pasture will be in the neighbourhood of $30,000 - not including labour.
That is a sizeable investment; but, it is only the beginning.
Corrals and handling facilities must also be constructed for the animals that need to be handled loaded and unloaded, dehorned, weaned, dewormed or weighed.
Making sure that buffalo are properly cared for is very important especially since the price of buffalo stock is so high.
Yearling and two year old buffalo sell for about $2,000 and bred females command a price of up to $3,000.
That is good for people that have breeding stock to sell but it makes things expensive for people just starting out in the wild game industry, like the Waterhen Band.
In total, the Waterhen Bison Enterprises ranch will cost in the neighbourhood of $400,000.
The band is committed to investing over $65,000 inequity and wages, as well as equipment including a tractor, front end loader, and a house for the farm manager.
Other funding dollars come from SIAP Inc., the Indian and Native Affairs Secretariat, the Northern Economic Development Subsidiary Agreement (NEDSA) and a ban the band hopes will be guaranteed by the Saskatchewan Indian Loan Company (SILCO).
The band has hired Edward Running Around to be the manager of the ranch.
According to Don Morin, Business and Management Advisor to the Waterhen Lake Band, Running Around has one of the most important assets needed for a wild game operation.
"Edward has an extensive background in ranching," says Morin. "He's been in feedlots where they had 12,000 head of cattle, and ranch operations with 2,000 head."
For six months, Running Around has been learning about buffalo farming at conferences, auctions and ranches in the United States and Canada.
He also spent five weeks on the Adam Ranch near Grande Prairie, Alberta, which with 1,500 heads of buffalo is the biggest bison ranching operation in Canada.
Dan Patten is the manager of the Adams Ranch and it was he who arranged to take Running Around into their operation and give him some experience with plains bison.
Said Patten, "Basically the husbandry practices for domestic livestock can be transferred to bison, except that bison don't need the amount of care that cattle do."
Bison have a different temperament than cattle says Patten - they are wilder, stonger, and more wary of human beings than cattle are.
Plains bison like open pastures and according to Patten, who visited the site of the Waterhen project last year, the grassland pasture on Waterhen Lake Reserve which has been cleared, worked up and seeded - should provide a good habitat for the buffalo which will consume about 10,000 pounds of forage each per year.
Said Patten, "I think they'll do very well."
But productions isn't everything. Once the buffalo are raised to market size somebody has to buy them.
According to Patten, the band should start working on developing markets right now.
There are several markets for buffalo and buffalo by-products.
Calves can be sent to feed lots where they are raised to market size; "feeders" can be sold to other ranchers who will feed the buffalo until they reach market size; and 'finished" animals can be shipped to market as live animals or as carcasses. Finally, old bulls can be processed into meats like salami and sold to retailers and restaurants.
Buffalo by products can also be sold. According to Patten, the Adams Ranch sells heads and hides in Alberta, the Northwest Territories and the United States.
Buffalo heads sell for between $1,000 and $2,000, while hides sell for between $ 75 and $150 depending on whether they are thin summer hides or the heavier winter hides.
Chief Martell says that for the first few years, the Waterhen Bison Ranch will sell most of their yearlings to feedlots where they are worth $1.65 per pound for live animals - compared to .82 cents for cattle.
The band will sell two-thirds of their yearlings every year and keep the remaining one-third for breeding stock, until they have 200 heads of bison.
Martell says that once they have their herd built up the band could make bison available to other band members interested in setting up a bison ranching operation.
Although the Waterhen Band is closest to getting their wild game ranch into production, a number of other Indian bands in Saskatchewan are looking into wild game ranching on their reserves.
Albert and Gordon Angus from the Thunderchild Reserve near Turtleford gave been working to get involved in a buffalo ranch there. Burton Smokey Day from Kinistin Reserve has submitted a proposal for a buffalo ranch and has arranged for the Band to invest in land in the project.
Chief Martell and Don Morin both stressed the importance of developing land use policies at the band level to clarify who can make use of band lands and for what purposes.
After the land use question is resolved, potential ranchers must evaluate their land in order to see that it is indeed suitable for wild game.
According to Martell, the Waterhen band has invited biologists and other ranchers to visit their ranch "to be sure it good for bison."
Although bison seem to be the animal of choice for many bands, Hank Neapetung of the Nut Lake Reserve has been looking into elk ranching.
Like the plains bison, wapiti elk are traditional inhabitants of the prairies and tend to require less care and handling than cattle.
And like buffalo, elk commands the high prices that put wild game into the gourmet stores and fine restaurants, rather than on supermarket shelves.
According to one survey, when a side of beef was selling for $1.79 per pound in 1988, bison sides were selling for $4.70 per pound and New Zealand venison was selling for $3.68 per pound.
There are an estimated 1,850 elk on game farms in Canada today, 600 of them in Saskatchewan.
Information from New Zealand, one of the biggest wild game exporters, indicates that the Canadian market for elk venison is growing.
In 1986 New Zealand exported 42,688 pounds of elk venison to Canada, up almost 50 per cent from 28,686 the previous year.
This indicates a growing demand for will game in Canada and spells good news for wild game farmers who develop good marketing strategies for their meat product.
There is also a very lucrative market for "velvet" antlers - which sell for $125 per kilogram.
A full-grown elk stag will produce between 8 and 11 kilograms of antler every year, which can pay ranchers upwards of $1,000 per year for each set.
Velvet antler is sold primarily to Korean and Hong Kong buyers and is an important ingredient in traditional Chinese remedies.
Harvesting velvet antlers is a tricky job, according to Harold Greyeyes, North Battleford District field worker for the SIAP.
Greyeyes is in the process of developing a training program similar to the one Edward Running Around took part in - with Rick Alsager, an established elk rancher near Maidstone.
Alsager has what Greyeyes calls "a state of the art ranch" and has agreed to help beginners to the wild game ranching industry get some hands on experience.
"Realistically," says Greyeyes, "there are a lot of variables in game ranching -things you don't learn by reading a book. That sort of thing is learned from somebody that already knows, like Rick Alsager."
Although Greyeyes says that there is a great deal of interest in wild game farming, there are also people opposed to the industry.
According to some, says Greyeyes, wild game should remain wild and should not be confined on ranches.
However as Burton Smokey Day points out, Indian people have a traditional relationship with plains bison - "culling" only certain age groups or sexes of bison - in order to manage the herd numbers.
Says Smokey Day, "Indians, were the original buffalo care-takers."
Greyeyes agrees: "I wouldn't be practical to have buffalo roaming all over the place," he says "and the next best thing is a ranching situation."