How a northern Ontario community is rallying in search of escaped bison

December 21, 2021
How a northern Ontario community is rallying in search of escaped bison
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Environment Canada issued a wind warning on Dec. 16 as a Colorado Low swept through Ontario. The gusty day led to widespread power outages across the province; in Crystal Falls, Ont., winds toppled a large tree on farmer Mesut Ates’ property.

For Ates, who had spent the past three years preparing his farm, The BisON, for his first herd, it had devastating consequences.

The tree destroyed part of the fence keeping his eight yearling bison contained. Spooked by the commotion, they soon left for his neighbour’s property.

Once he noticed the herd leaving his land, Ates quickly moved to block off the nearby road. The young bison, however, moved farther away and into the bush.

Night was falling quickly. Ates decided to not risk driving them further into the bush; instead, he would return at dawn with hay and grain to coax them into returning.

The bison had other plans. In the darkness, they began to roam farther from the area.

Mesut Ates said he and his wife Serpil moved to Crystal Falls, Ont. to raise their daughter Elisa. (Submitted by Mesut Ates)

He said he decided to farm them because he wanted to do something unique. The history of bison captivated him and he said he wanted to help grow their population.

Ates said the herd has been able to survive in the wilderness because the habitat is similar enough to its natural environment. However, the animals’ young age made Ates concerned.

“If they came across a type of wolf, or type of coyote, that might be a problem for them,” he said.

In fact, natural predators are not the only risk the bison faced — or pose.

At 11:18 p.m. that same night, Nipissing West OPP officers responded to a single-car crash on Highway 64, the main highway near Crystal Falls. The herd had walked onto the highway and a driver hit one of the bison.

There were no human injuries in the crash but one animal was hurt. The officer killed the injured bison and the remaining herd moved back under the cover of the bush.

An ally arrives

By daybreak, Ates could not find his herd. He began trying to follow their tracks and droppings to see where they may have gone. Checking to see if the droppings had frozen helped him estimate how long ago the bison had passed through the area.

At the same time, word of the herd’s daring escape began to spread through online groups in the Sturgeon Falls, Ont. area. Nicole Lepage, who lives in Crystal Falls not far from the farm, took notice.

She had never met Ates or his family, who moved to the community in 2018. Deciding she might be of assistance, she sent Ates a message and offered her help.

Nicole Lepage, together with her husband Marc, have become the point of contact between the Ates family and the community helping to look for their bison. (Submitted by Nicole Lepage)

They soon realized Lepage’s wealth of contacts would be an asset, and she “kind of grew into this air-traffic controller position.”

By midday on Friday, Dec. 17, she had begun making posts on behalf of Ates, acting as an intermediary to allow him to focus on his search.

“He’s new to the area, doesn’t know anyone. We’ve lived here all our lives so we have contacts, we have family, we have people we know who know people, so that’s how it all started,” Lepage said.

Her first post asked if anyone with a drone would be able to come out and offer an aerial view. Lepage and her husband Marc, who worked as a teacher and a local business owner respectively, got a strong response nearly immediately.

Several drone owners said they’d be willing to help out. During the following day, some people offered to drive the side roads in search of the herd. Others offered to look while riding ATVs down bush paths, searching on foot or on horseback. A small aircraft flew overhead but did not make any sightings.

That afternoon, the searchers suspected that they were near Sturgeon Falls, more than six kilometres south of Crystal Falls. By Saturday morning, however, the search was on again and the teams figured the herd was roughly six kilometres west of Crystal Falls instead. Despite exhaustive drone searches of the area, the bison’s exact location remained a mystery.

Lepage issued another call-out, this time for a portable corral to rein in the herd once they could drive them into a clearing. It took less than three hours to find one; Ates began to make plans to get them all contained within the portable pen the following day.

Many online group members offered congratulations on a job well done as the resolution seemed all but inevitable. Sunday, however, brought more challenges.

The search stalls

A large team of searchers met up at the herd’s last known location on Sunday morning. Tracks and droppings suggested they remained in the area but their exact position was still unclear.

The ground team spent at least six hours looking for the herd, which was inching farther west. Some described the terrain as “brutal.” Horse-owners chose not to bring their animals back because they felt the ground conditions were too dangerous.

It appeared to be another dead-end day until another offer came through.

Rob Camirand operates drones with advanced capabilities such as thermal imaging and high-resolution cameras. (Submitted by Rob Camirand)

Rob Camirand of RC Drone Services in North Bay, Ont. saw a news report about the missing bison and thought he might have a solution. Camirand had a drone equipped with thermal imaging, and he had used it in the past to find missing dogs.

Rob Camirand says his drone’s thermal imaging system is as powerful as search-and-rescue equipment. The three white dots are the heat signatures from him and his two dogs. (Submitted by Rob Camirand)

“I could be up several hundred feet and I could be able to find the buffalo, like probably up to a kilometre away,” he said. “It’s pretty capable equipment.”

Camirand said the frozen ground, bare trees and larger heat signatures from the bison should have made it a fairly straightforward process. Ates called off the search for the day and prepared to meet Camirand Monday morning, ready to finally pinpoint his herd’s location in the bush.

Camirand arrived Monday morning but before he could lift off, there was something else in the air — snow. That grounded the day’s search plans in a hurry.

“You have to be able to maintain it [the drone] within line of sight. And unfortunately, the visibility was very poor so I couldn’t really have much of a reach,” he said.

It was a disappointing result for Ates. His herd would remain stranded for another day.

“If weather gets better or if I get any tips, he’s willing to come back again,” Ates said.

Community invested in outcome

As of Tuesday morning the bison are still at large in the wilds of West Nipissing and Ates continues to brainstorm ways of getting his herd back.

Community members remind one another in online comment threads to drive with caution and to not approach the bison if found. They are, after all, wild animals that can be unpredictable. Ates asks people to call either the OPP or him directly in case the herd emerges from the bush.

For Lepage, who describes her now-constant texting as “a full-time job,” this episode has offered a remarkable look at community spirit in the West Nipissing area.

“Something that I was really overwhelmed with was the amount of people coming out to help someone who’s so new to the area. We didn’t know about him until this happened,” she said. “Northerners are fantastic people.”

Sunday marked the first time Lepage and Ates met in person, after exchanging dozens of text messages and phone calls as they co-ordinated the search effort. She said gaining a lifelong friendship has been a bright part of this ordeal.

Ates said the community’s spirit and support has made him grateful to now call Crystal Falls his home.

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