On the trail of the Wood Buffalo

(continuer en français) – Last updated: October 11, 2020

The Plains Buffalo is well known and widely distributed in North America from Mexico to the Canadian Prairies. There is also another subspecies, the Wood Buffalo, found only in northern Canada. These are even more massive, weighing up to one tonne and reaching up to two metres at the top of their humps. They are considered an endangered species, their population barely exceeds 10,000 individuals, half of which live in the wild in the Wood Buffalo National Park area.

Wood Buffalo National Park is the largest national park in Canada, covering an area larger than Switzerland. It is located mainly in Alberta, but is relatively easier to reach from the Northwest Territories. From Yellowknife, it is only a matter of driving around Great Slave Lake to Fort Smith, where park headquarters are located. This is about 750 km of a monotonous road between two fir walls.

There are approximately 5,000 buffalo free to move in and around the park, under the fairly remote control of the rangers. The rangers try to identify and remove individuals suffering from contagious diseases, weakening the species as a result of unfortunate hybridizations with plains buffalo. In addition to park staff, wolves are also active in the removal of weakened individuals. Buffalo usually form small groups, if only to defend themselves from wolves, their main predator.

Given the small number of individuals and the size of the national park, it is a matter of luck to see buffalo. However, buffalo are regularly found at roadside where they create a real hazard of distraction and collision. Nevertheless, they appear more often on road signs than in reality. Their apparent apathy can quickly turn into aggressiveness if they feel threatened. It is advisable to observe them from a distance, without trying to get too close to them.

Prior to the creation of the national park in 1922, the area was extensively occupied by several Aboriginal groups, travelling on waterways, fishing and hunting. With the growth of the fur trade, the Métis also increased in number. Today several Indian reservations are included within the park’s boundaries.

Without being an experienced hiker, it is not easy to explore the park. There are no roads outside of Northwest Territories Route 5 to Fort Smith. There are a few dirt roads that connect to some remote lakes where recreational activities are provided, but there is no coherent network and human influence over the area is minimal.

In the absence of land routes, canoes and seaplanes allow people to travel by using the rivers and numerous lakes.

Pine Lake is one of the places that can be accessed, even basic cabins can be rented in addition to campsites.

The salt plains are one of the natural attractions. They form vast expanses that are partly lacking in vegetation due to the abundant presence of salt. Salt ascends from the depths where it accumulated in ancient times when a sea occupied the inland part of the continent. This forms a strange landscape with patches of vegetation surrounded by whitish land. A small promontory gives a clear view of it, and it is also possible to follow a footpath winding through the plain.

Due to its natural diversity and the unique species found here, Wood Buffalo National Park has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1983.

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Other article about Northwest Territories:

  • Fort Simpson

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