John Mattingly: Socratic Rancher 3-4-13 |

John Mattingly: Socratic Rancher 3-4-13

One place wild buffalo still roam is in northern Canada, in the Wood Buffalo National Park between Alberta and the Northern Territories, an 11 million acre game preserve five times the size of Yellowstone.

The buffalo in this region are different from the buffalo of the Great Plains. They are bigger, weighing over a ton for females and a ton and a half for mature bulls. These buffalo are also darker in color, and adapted to the extreme cold with massive coats of hair. They are so well insulated that snow on their coats does not melt. These buffalo look as wild as they are.

The only control on this population of wild buffalo is wolf packs, of which there are about a dozen roaming the Park, who must make a buffalo kill once a week on average, per pack, to survive and provide for their pups. Because the wild buffalo of the Park are not exactly easy prey, this dynamic makes for a lot of natural drama, captured by Jeff Turner, a lifelong wildlife photographer who has to be as wily as the creatures he films.

Recently Turner hired a sky cam mounted on a helicopter to capture footage of the life cycle of the wolves and buffalo in a way never seen before, presented in a NOVA program titled “Cold Warriors: Wolves and Buffalo.”

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The buffalo, weighing 20 times that of an alpha male wolf, understand that as long as they stand and face the wolves, they are safe. But the wolves tease and provoke them until the buffalo eventually run, and when they do, the wolves can nip at a buffalo’s hind leg, wound the animal, and eventually outlast it in a rundown in the snow, the buffalo having to plow the snow ahead of it to escape, while the wolf lopes along in the cleared path left behind.

Some of the most moving footage is of buffalo cows protecting their calves, who stay right by their side as their mother does a desperate dance of evasion, which the calf must follow by staying within the exact arc of its mother’s pattern or be nipped by the pursuing wolf. The dance of evasion and pursuit can go on for hours until one or the other gives up or triumphs.

Occasionally, a sick buffalo, or stray calf, is snared by the wolves and they are capable of acting with extreme teamwork when facing starvation, with seven to 10 wolves ganging up on a single, healthy, mature buffalo, and a couple of wolves crushed by the buffalo’s kick or gored by its horns — a necessary sacrifice for the welfare of the pack.

But perhaps the most surprising footage in “Cold Warriors” was a spring chase between a pack of 10 wolves and a herd of about 50 buffalo. The wolves were attempting to get the buffalo to run, but the buffalo were not going to do it. It was a long standoff that appeared to favor the buffalo.

Suddenly, the alpha male wolf took off at breakneck pace in a direction away from the standing buffalo herd, drawing the rest of the pack in tow. Turner said, “I have no idea what this pack is up to, but we will find out.” The sky cam followed the pack some 10 miles to a clearing in the woods where two buffalo bulls stood: one old bull, one young bull.

Once the wolves arrived at the pair of bulls, they did not attack. Instead, they reclined, tongues out, taking it easy. The young buffalo bull attempted to chase them off, but the wolves did not take his attacks seriously.

Finally, the old bull and young bull nuzzled each other, turning in tight circles, after which the young bull took off running at full speed to join the main herd. The old bull then collapsed to the ground, giving himself to the wolves, who respected him by killing him quickly. ❖

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