“There are bison babies born everyday,” Stephanie Gale says with mother’s-like pride. “Things are getting pretty busy around here.”

Stephanie, a Technical Assistant at the Beaver Creek Wood Bison Ranch, has been working with Syncrude’s bison herd for 12 years and she loves her job.

“This is the best time of year for me. I love this season.” And by this season, she means the calving season. 

Stephanie and her colleagues that work with the herd of nearly 300 bison are expecting about 60 calves this year. The first calf of the season was born about month before Mother’s Day on April 13.

“We can tell as soon as we come to the field if there’s a new baby,” explains Stephanie. “The moms go to ‘Baby Corner,’ which is an area of the field that the bison moms have chosen as the place to give birth. If the babies are dark in colour, we know they’re very new because they’re still wet.”

Stephanie says the whole labour and delivery happens very fast, in about 15 to 20 minutes. While there is veterinary care at the ranch, staff are careful to give labouring and new moms ample space.

“They like to go off on their own and the mothers are very protective of their calves. Especially the newer moms,” says Stephanie. “The bison that have had a few calves are much more relaxed, but the first-time mothers won’t let any one near their babies.”

A bison cow and a calf stand in a field.
This Mother’s Day, several bison in Syncrude’s herd will be celebrating as new moms. 

A Mother’s Touch

Things happen fast in Baby Corner, which is a bison maternity ward of sorts. After the calf is born, the mother immediately cleans her newborn and eats the placenta, which not only provides nutrients to the mother, but also helps stave off predators by removing evidence of a baby. Astonishingly, the new calves are on their wobbly feet and nursing within 20 minutes of being born.

After a few weeks, when the calves are stronger, Stephanie and her colleagues can get closer to them.

“The young calves are super curious and often come right up to our trucks,” says Stephanie. “Mom is usually not far, keeping a watchful eye on her baby.”

The Wood Buffalo region, where Syncrude’s two ranches are located, was once home to thousands of wood bison. But by the 1880s, the boreal forest of Western Canada was vacant of the animals that Indigenous Peoples of the region relied on for food, clothing and spiritual teachings.

Syncrude reintroduced wood bison to the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo in 1993. Along with Fort McKay First Nation, Syncrude co-manages the herd that grazes on land reclaimed from mining operations. Beginning in early June, depending on field conditions, you can take a glimpse through this live camera feed at a few members of the herd seen from the Wood Bison Viewpoint on Highway 63.

Since the reintroduction, the Syncrude herd, which now includes several new calves, has grown from 30 to almost 300.