Wood bison: Trade-offs in summer habitat use
Photo: Rob Belanger 2016.
A wood bison (Bison bison athabascae) of the Ronald Lake herd in the study area.
Where do the wood bison roam? Habitat selection of the Ronald Lake herd
Ronald Lake, Northern Alberta
Graduate Student
M.Sc. (Conservation Biology) (Fall 2015-2018)
Adjunct Professor
Curator of Mammalogy, Royal Alberta Museum
Status: Active, Study continues from previous since 2015, currently in progress.

Bison once numbered in the tens of millions until the turn of the 20th century when they were nearly extirpated from North America. Wood bison are now a Threatened species in Canada with an estimated population of approximately 10,000 individuals across 12 wild subpopulations. The establishment and recovery of bison populations to this point marks a major achievement for the conservation of this species. However, as land use by humans expands further into pristine, natural environments, such as those surrounding Fort McMurray, habitat for threatened and endangered species will be more limited.

In Alberta, free-roaming wood bison are primarily found in 2 subpopulations located in the Hay-Zama and Wood Buffalo National Park (WBNP) areas. The Ronald Lake herd is located just south of WBNP and comprised of only 200 animals. Previous studies of wood bison have focused mostly on habitat use in relation to forage quality and quantity or aspects of predation. Studies of other boreal ungulate species have addressed more of the mechanisms/factors and trade-offs influencing their behaviour and habitat use. The purpose of this project is to provide a more comprehensive understanding of bison habitat use. This includes not only understanding habitat supply (forage) but also environmental and biological factors that may (1) limit seasonal habitat use, (2) influence behavioural response, and (3) affect requirements for health and survival. A comprehensive understanding of the habitat requirements of bison and the mechanisms affecting habitat use is important for guiding assessments of critical habitat, informing mitigation/reclamation actions required by oil sands activities in the area, management and recovery of declining bison populations, and identification and mapping of areas suitable for reintroduction and recovery of bison.