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A new Canadian study published in the journal Nature finds that the flight of a Mackenzie wood bison herd moving out of its prime habitat may be a by-product of climate change.
Nature | Canadian Wildlife

Lakes in Canada's north double, forcing bison off habitat


Daksha Rangan
Digital Reporter

Thursday, February 23, 2017, 1:32 PM - Over the past couple of centuries, bison have survived tremendous adversity when it comes to survival. Despite the rise of conservation efforts to protect North America’s largest land animal, yet another threat to their survival looms, new research finds.

A new Canadian study published in the journal Nature finds that the flight of a Mackenzie wood bison herd moving out of its prime habitat may be a by-product of climate change. The main cause of habitat loss, the study says, is lake expansion and flooding.


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File Photo: Bison in transit.

”[T]he proportion of this landscape occupied by water doubled since 1986,” the paper’s abstract reads. “[A]nd the timing of lake expansion corresponds to bison movements out of the Mackenzie Bison Sanctuary.”

The scale of lake expansion over recent decades is also unprecedented over the past several hundred years at minimum, the study notes.

By examining satellite images of Fort Providence, N.W.T. between 1986 and 2011, the study’s lead author Josh Thienpont and his colleagues saw that the area of land covered by water had risen from 5.7 per cent to 11 per cent.

“The whole landscape does appear to be getting wetter,” Thienpont told The Globe and Mail. “Some of the local community had noticed that it was more difficult to travel on the landscape because it was wetter.”

While some lakes didn’t experience a significant change, others grew substantially – one lake is now more than eight times bigger, The Globe and Mail reports.

The findings showed that the lakes increased in size over time, rather than somewhat cyclically. By examining soil and sediment, the researchers concluded that the lakes are now larger than any other time over the past 200 years, which means the growth isn’t the product of long-term, naturally occurring cycles, The Globe notes.


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Wood bison, sometimes called mountain buffalo. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Wood bison were named after the region in which they live-- one that once included the formerly forested areas of northern Alberta, northwestern Saskatchewan, the Yukon, and southern Northwest Territories.

A handful of wood bison managed to escape the widespread hunting spree that nearly drove the species to extinction.

Due to the loss of vital habitat, roughly 2,000 to 3,000 of the sanctuary’s bison are impacted, The Globe reports. These bison are the country’s last genetically pure and tuberculosis-free herd of wood bison.

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