Jack Peden first saw Fort McMurray as a child in the 1950s, when he spent his summers visiting his father, who was in oilfield exploration with several companies in the region.
Jack, who is called Torchy by everybody including his wife of 50 years, fell in love with the pristine, rugged beauty of the boreal forest and moved here permanently with his family in 1962. While wood bison had long since disappeared from this region, Torchy played a key role in bringing them back as the first manager of the Beaver Creek Wood Bison Ranch.
Twenty five years after 30 head of wood bison arrived at Mildred Lake on Feb. 16, 1993, Torchy remains proud of what the ranch has become.
“I was the most fortunate guy working at Syncrude because it is such a great program,” says the Syncrude retiree, whose nickname was borrowed from a famous cyclist that shared his name. “It was the best program our company could have ever done. I’ve travelled all over North America and talked to so many people about it and you can see how their attitudes have changed towards industry based on what was done with the ranch.”
(One of the 30 wood bison released at Syncrude on February 16, 1993 after being relocated from Elk Island National Park.)
The idea for a ranch stemmed from the need to research how reclaimed land at Syncrude would stand up to large mammals. Former Syncrude president Jim Carter said the company initially looked at using beef cattle for that job.
“Originally, we toyed with the idea of cattle ranching and raising cattle on the reclaimed land. People were raising and grazing cattle out at Janvier. Torchy was also raising cattle at his place in town on the other side of Clearwater River,” says Jim, who was Syncrude’s Vice President of Operations when ranch started. “When we approached the Fort McKay First Nation, they told us they would love to see bison return to the region. And the idea made so much sense. The wood bison were here 200 years ago – this area was part of their natural range that stretches down to Lac La Biche. And the Wood Buffalo National Park had an anthrax outbreak at that time so our herd had the potential to be used as stock to help replenish the herds up there.”
And Syncrude had the right man to manage the herd already.
“Torchy was working in mine maintenance for us at the time but he was a real natural. Torchy was ranching already with a small herd of Hereford cattle at his place near the Clearwater River so he was already skilled with animal husbandry,” Jim says.
(Bison twins Kisik (Cree for sky) and Tu (Dene water) were born at the Beaver Creek Wood Bison Ranch in 2010.)
“And prior to joining Syncrude, Torchy had run a gas station in Fort McKay so he had a lot of relationships in the community and that was important. We wanted people from Fort McKay involved in the ranch. Chief Jim Boucher was a big proponent of the ranch and we saw the ranch as an opportunity to partner with our closest neighbour.”
Over the next 25 years, many members of the Fort McKay First Nation have worked at the ranch, including relatives of Chief Boucher. The bison herd has a special significance to the Nation, he says.
“Our people have a longstanding relationship with the bison, which is why one of our most important spiritual lakes is called Buffalo Lake,” says Chief Boucher. “Our people have eaten meat from bison in that herd – we have an affinity for it because it is a good, lean, healthy meat. Many of our people, including my brother Ricky Boucher and Harvey Roland, have worked in the operations and management of the ranch. We see it as a significant entity for the future.”
While the bison, which now number around 300, have proven Syncrude’s reclaimed land can support large animals, Syncrude is committed to keeping the herd at Mildred Lake and has opened up new reclaimed land for them to graze on in the summer.
The wood bison remain a very important symbol for Syncrude and its employees. The herd has demonstrated our commitment to returning the land we disturb to a part of the boreal landscape capable of sustaining the largest land mammals in North America
Syncrude’s Vice President – Mining
“And just as important, the bison represent our commitment to working with Aboriginal communities in this region. We’re very proud to mark this anniversary with our close neighbours at the Fort McKay First Nation, our partners in bringing back the wood bison to our region.”