25 years later, Syncrude's bison herd thriving on reclaimed oilsands lands
Size of the bison herd has grown from 30 to 300
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.
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.
- MORE FORT McMURRAY NEWS: Fort McMurray plans to build up flood defences
- MORE FORT McMURRAY NEWS: Criminal charges stayed after two Fort McMurray pedestrians killed
- MORE FORT McMURRAY NEWS: Sign outside Fort McMurray Islamic centre defaced
"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.