A Manitoba rancher has enlisted a detective agency to unravel an unusual crime: the theft of approximately 1,000 bison from a family-run range near Pine River.
Tom Olson of High Country Bison, located about 100 kilometres north of Dauphin, said the animals disappeared during the winter and the disparity was discovered only after his family -- who runs four ranges across the Prairies -- did a count a few weeks ago.
That count came up about 1,000 short of the expected 2,000-plus herd.
That would be a massive theft that would have required several semi-trailer trucks and an intimate knowledge of the range, Olson said.
"Suffice to say someone with a very planned organization came in and removed 1,000 bison over a period of time," Olson told the Free Press Wednesday from Pine River, noting a semi-trailer would hold about 50 bison. "It was obviously someone who knew our operation very well.
"They would have had to know exactly where the range was and when we wouldn't be out there."
The Olson operation is a massive, although not widely known bison-recovery project that began 20 years ago with six bison on a ranch near Calgary, where Olson had become a successful international tax lawyer. Since then, along with his wife and 10 children, the Olson clan runs four bison ranches with 40,000 acres across three provinces. The Pine River operation is spread over 30,000 acres.
Olson said the ranches are too vast to keep an accurate count of animals during the winter. Besides, the entire project is designed to have minimal handling of the animals. "It's like counting ants on an ant hill," he said. "They range pretty freely."
Each spring the herd is run through a counting point to gauge attrition during the winter, which includes natural death and death by predators. When the tally came up so drastically short, Olson knew criminal activity had to be involved.
Olson chose not to contact local RCMP. Instead, he hired a private firm (Dauk Trowell & Associates Investigations), which posted a $5,000 reward and sent flyers to local residents.
"It's a big investigation," Olson said. "So we chose to go the private route."
Olson would not elaborate on the investigation except to say, "We've got some ideas. That's all I can say. We still need more information."
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Olson believes the animals have either been sold, probably in smaller numbers, to other bison operators (since only a few of the bison are tagged), or slaughtered. "That's what our investigators are trying to determine," he noted. "They might well be in somebody's freezer. Or a lot of freezers."
Although the range is a conservation project, a bulk of the financing comes from High Country selling excess animals, mostly to higher-end restaurants across the Prairies, many in Calgary.
"We've put a lot of our heart and soul in this," Olson said. "It's heartbreaking, but we'll march on without them. It's a big setback but we're committed to the project. It's important to us and it's important to society in general."
Olson has long preached that bison are the only megafauna (large animal) to survive the ice age. "There was a whole web of life and the bison were the keystone," he explains. Hence Olson's decision in 1993 to start the first recovery range, with the goal of creating ecosystems that would include tall grass and as many animals -- elk, moose, birds, predators -- as existed two centuries ago.
But from the outset, Olson has had detractors. While most neighbours have been welcoming, he said, there are always a few who object to the intrusion of a bison range into historical cattle country. There have been instances where range gates have been left open. Last December, a man near the Pine Creek range shot and killed more than one bison that had accidentally left the property.
"You always get someone with a bee in their bonnet," Olson said. "They just don't like the idea of bison being there."
However, Olson is convinced neighbours weren't behind the bison heist. "It's not hostility," he said. "It's something on a higher level. It's criminal. It's not motivated by pettiness, it's motivated by someone's greed."