Bison roam over 13,000 acres of land at Old Man on His Back Ranch, but beyond the idyllic sight are the building blocks for a three-year research project on grasslands conservation.  

The research project, conducted by the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) and the University of Saskatchewan, has seen bison and cattle in this southwest part of Saskatchewan fitted with GPS collars that help establish their grazing patterns.

"They sit nice and loose and keep track of where they are going and we can download that information from afar and get a good sense of where they've been," Matthew Braun, NCC's manager of conservation science and planning, explained to CBC Radio's Afternoon Edition.

As much as the sight of bison brings back echoes of history, the land is not what it was before settlers arrived in this part of the prairies, said Braun.

Evolution of the grasslands 

The grasslands evolved with bison eating plants and roaming over the lands, and researchers want to see how closely they can simulate how the grasslands evolved under these grazing pressures.

Researchers will watch how bison and cattle graze, and will then introduce changes to those patterns, to see how grazing patterns affect the types of plants growing and how plant growth itself is affected by the animals.  

"Those are all the important components for keeping the other plants and animals out there happy as well," said Braun.


The Nature Conservancy of Canada and the University of Saskatchewan are teaming up for a research project looking at bison and cattle and their grazing patterns. (Kim Bennett photo)

Ranchers have also gotten onboard, bringing their experience in collaring the cattle that are part of the research project. The end goal is to identify ways in which all people can manage and conserve the ecosystem.

Now the next part of the project will be to wait and observe what unfolds as the bison and cattle roam on, unaware of the role they are playing in the research and the land they graze on.

"We'll be tracking this over the next couple of years and we'll get a good bit of interesting research out of the deal," Braun said.