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The Ecological Buffalo - On the Trail of a Keystone Species

The Ecological Buffalo

On the Trail of a Keystone Species

Paperback : 9780889778719, 304 pages, July 2022


  • Short-listed, Publishing Award, Saskatchewan Book Award 2023


An expert on the buffalo tells the history of this keystone species through extensive research and beautiful photographs.

The mere mention of the buffalo instantly brings to mind the vast herds that once roamed the North American continent, and few wild animals captivate our imaginations as much as the buffalo do. Once numbering in the tens of millions, these magnificent creatures played a significant role in structuring the varied ecosystems they occupied. For at least 24,000 years, North American Indigenous Peoples depended upon them, and it was the abundance of buffalo that initially facilitated the dispersal of humankind across the continent. 
With the arrival of Europeans and their rapacious capacity for wildlife destruction, the buffalo was all but exterminated. In a span of just thirty years during the mid-1800s, buffalo populations plummeted from more than 30 million to just twenty-three. And with them went all of the intricate food webs, the trophic cascades, and the inter-species relationships that had evolved over thousands of years.
Despite this brush with extinction, the buffalo survived, and isolated populations are slowly recovering. As this recovery proceeds, the relationships the animals once had with thousands of species are being re-established in a remarkable process of ecological healing. The intricacy of those restored relationships is the subject of this book.
Based on author Wes Olson’s thirty-five years of working intimately with bison—and featuring 180 stunning, full-colour photographs by Johane Janelle—The Ecological Buffalo is a story that takes the reader on a journey to understand the myriad connections this keystone species has with the Great Plains.


Shortlisted, Publishing Award, Saskatchewan Book Award, 2023

“Wondrous to see #grasslands National Park: National Treasure! + to hear #bison knowledge from Wes Olson, also National Treasure. #sask” —Margaret E. Atwood @MargaretAtwood, Twitter, 25Jun2013

"The Ecological Buffalo shows the wonder and abundance of these ecosystems where bison are a keystone species. One gets the agonizing feeling that a shroud of crisis could be lifted by simply expanding the bison range and letting them live free." —Alberta Views
The Ecological Buffalo braids together Western science and Traditional Ecological Knowledge in words and images to create a luminous portrait of how this keystone species keeps the web of life healthy and whole—from soil biota to grasses to birds to humans.” —Cristina Eisenberg, author of The Wolf’s Tooth and The Carnivore Way
“Wes Olson generously shares his intricate knowledge of the buffalo, and we are all richer for it. He explains how having more bison walking the land will benefit not just the threatened grasslands ecosystem, but the multitudes of birds, bugs, plants, and animals who need the buffalo. He also acknowledges the connection between the buffalo and Indigenous people but respectfully leaves space for Leroy Little Bear to tell of Indigenous Peoples’ special relationship with the buffalo. Johane Janelle’s accompanying photographs bring us out onto the land with her and Wes, so we may establish and deepen our own relationship with this integral keystone species.” —Tasha Hubbard, filmmaker, Singing Back the Buffalo
“This book should be on everybody’s reading list.” —Leroy Little Bear
“No one of European heritage can explain the ecological reasons why bison belong in our landscape better than Wes Olson.” —Harvey Locke, co-founder and senior advisor for Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative and Nature Needs Half
“Wes Olson and Johane Janelle have written an outstanding book, both ecologically rigorous and stylistically accessible, through their exquisite writing and imagery. The Ecological Buffalo is the culmination of their life’s work to understand the complex biodiversity and human history surrounding bison in the North American landscape. By illustrating the critical role of keystone species in sustaining complex ecosystems, they weave a hopeful story that restoration of a once endangered species is possible. A must read!” —Keith A. Wheeler, International Union for Conservation of Nature Commission on Education and Communication