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Nature Plains & Prairies

The Ecological Buffalo

On the Trail of a Keystone Species

by (author) Wes Olson

by (photographer) Johane Janelle

foreword by Harvey Locke

afterword by Leroy Littlebear

University of Regina Press
Initial publish date
Jul 2022
Plains & Prairies, Plants & Animals, Mammals
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Jul 2022
    List Price
  • eBook

    Publish Date
    Jul 2022
    List Price

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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.

About the authors

Wes Olson was raised in the foothills of western Alberta, and it was there that he developed a passion for wild places and wild species. Following a thrity-two-year career as a Canadian National Park warden, Wes lives an 80 acre patch of forest and beaver ponds beside Elk Island National Park in central Alberta. He is the author of A Field Guide to Plains Bison and Portraits of the Bison.

Wes Olson's profile page

Johane Janelle migrated west from Quebec to experience a backcountry horse trip in Jasper National Park. Her love of horses and photography has developed into a career as an equine photographer. Her images have graced the covers of many horse-related magazines over the past several years.

Johane Janelle's profile page

Harvey Locke is a conservationist, writer, and photographer. He is co-founder of the Yellowstone-Yukon Conservation Initiative and past president of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society.

Harvey Locke's profile page

Leroy Little Bear is a Blackfoot researcher, Professor Emeritus at the University of Lethbridge, founding member of Canada's first Native American Studies Department, Director of the Harvard University Native American Program, and recipient of the National Aboriginal Achievement Award for Education.

Leroy Littlebear's profile page


  • Short-listed, Publishing Award, Saskatchewan Book Award

Editorial Reviews

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

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