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25 years later, Syncrude's bison herd thriving on reclaimed oilsands lands

Syncrude celebrates 25 years of its bison ranch at its oilsands operation north of Fort McMurray.

Size of the bison herd has grown from 30 to 300

Syncrude's bison herd celebrates its 25th anniversary this week. It has grown from an original herd of 30 to 300. (Photo courtesy of Syncrude)

Greg Fuhr never thought part of his portfolio as a Syncrude executive would include a bison ranch.

"People are puzzled when we say that," said Fuhr, Syncrude's vice- president of production, mining and extraction. "We get a lot of questions on that."

As of Friday, he can say that Syncrude managed that herd of bison on its oilsands lease for 25 years — stretching back to a time when wild herds of the animals had disappeared from the area.

Originally, Syncrude wanted to introduce cattle as a way of studying how large mammals would fair on a depleted oilsands mine that had been filled in and planted with vegetation.

When the company took the idea to the Fort McKay First Nation, its leaders told the oil company they would like to see bison returned to the region.

"We thought something more indigenous to the area would be suitable," Fort McKay Chief Jim Boucher said.

Originally, Syncrude wanted to introduce cattle as a way of studying how large mammals would fair on a depleted oilsands mine that had been filled in and planted with vegetation. When the company took the idea to the Fort McKay First Nation, its leaders told the oil company they would like to see bison returned to the region. 0:55

Boucher said the First Nation thought the experiment would be a good opportunity to build up the population of healthy bison after their numbers dwindled in Wood Buffalo National Park.

Syncrude introduced 30 bison from Elk Island National Park outside Edmonton to Mildred Lake, north of Fort McMurray, in 1993. 

The herd has now grown to 300.

Bison an example for future oilsand reclamation

Over the years, members of the Fort McKay First Nation worked with Syncrude to manage the herd.

The herd's growth represents the success of Syncrude's oilsands reclamation, said Boucher, but he added that the industry overall needs to do a better job with remediation of land it has disturbed.

"The numbers are very disappointing to look at currently," Boucher said. "I think we need to do a lot more reclamation to demonstrate to the world that we have the ability to reclaim the land."

Boucher hopes to see the herd grow to the point where the First Nation could market and sell bison-based products, including the meat.

According to federal government statistics, about one square kilometre of the 895 square kilometres of mined oilsands was certified as reclaimed as of 2015.

Follow David Thurton, CBC's Fort McMurray correspondent, on Facebook and Twitter, email him at david.thurton@cbc.ca

About the Author

David Thurton

David Thurton is CBC's mobile journalist in Fort McMurray. He's worked for CBC in the Maritimes & in Canada's Arctic. Email: david.thurton@cbc.ca