CRYSTAL FALLS — It’s been almost four weeks since a herd of eight bison wandered off a ranch in Crystal Falls, about 15 minutes north of Sturgeon Falls.
Yesterday, the final bison was returned to the ranch.
Mesut Ates was happy to see them return and glad to put the worry behind him. Ates runs BisON ranch, a relatively new venture he started with his wife in 2018 just before their first daughter was born.
The next year was busy for the new Crystal Falls ranchers as they began planning their new business and preparing the property for the bison.
“Step by step, we worked hard for our dream,” Ates recalled, “knowing there was a light at the end of the tunnel was encouraging.”
Once the fence lines were cleared, fences installed, and pastures divided into multiple sections for rotational gazing, the big day was fast approaching—almost time to purchase the bison.
This first herd was bought in the summer of 2021, and the bison took to the 300-acre ranch right way.
“Happy and healthy” the bison felt “like they were in their natural habitat” with “plenty of pastures” to graze throughout the days, Ates said.
Things were looking up for the family.
With the ranch up and running, they would soon have meat to sell, and their new business would begin seeing some returns on their investment and hard work.
Little did they know a storm was on the horizon.
Wicked winds blew through Crystal Falls on December 16 and toppled a dying tree standing next to one of Ates’ fences.
The tree crushed a section of fence and before the ranchers noticed the opening, the bison did, and as the grass is always greener, the herd moseyed over the fallen fence onward to undiscovered pastures.
Before long, the word was getting out that the bison were on the loose. On December 17 the OPP issued a warning to residents to keep their eyes out while driving Highway 64 after a lone driver struck a bison.
“There were no injuries in the accident,” the OPP mentioned in their report, but that referred to human injuries. The bison’s injuries were so intense it was put down.
Constable Robert Lewis warned the public that although “they look docile, bison are dangerous, unpredictable, and may charge without warning.”
“Do not approach any of these animals,” the OPP warned.
After the highway incident, the bison returned to woods, out of sight from human eyes, digging through the shallow snow for their next meal.
Indeed, the habitat was decent enough for lost bison. Ates assumed they could find food. However, even at around 2,000 pounds, he knew his herd would have serious trouble if they encountered some wolves in those dark woods.
He also worried about the roadways, and potential injury to his herd—twisting or breaking a hoof or leg in the rough bush. His entire herd was gone, and without the bison to bank on, the new ranch’s “light at the end of the tunnel” was beginning to dim.
Hope returned once the community heard the news of the vagrant bison. Before long, West Nipissing residents were posting about the lost herd on social media, offering assistance and support to Mesut and his family.
The outpouring of support was much welcomed by Ates, and before long, a full-scale search was underway, and neighbours were asking for help with finding drone operators that could assist the search and for portable corral systems to help wrangle the animals once found.
Ron Camirand runs RC Drone Services in North Bay, and he put his drone—equipped with thermal imaging—to work.
However, despite his best efforts, the weather was not optimal for drone searches. A few were executed, but in the end, it was boots on the ground that spotted the herd.
The bison were spotted about “fifteen or twenty” kilometers from the ranch, Ates said, “they were always travelling” since their escape.
People volunteered to search “on ATV’s and horses” as well, and even some pilots involved with “training flights” kept an eye over the area when they were flying.
Eventually the herd “settled down” in one area—which was close to Shoreline Road—and Ates, with help from his friends, was “able to set up a portable corral system” to lead the animals into a truck for transport.
“They’re doing okay,” he said, after corralling six of the bison back to the ranch on Wednesday, January 5th.
He knew it was just a matter of time before the last bison was captured, and sure enough, the wayward animal was reunited with the herd on Sunday, January 9th.
“I am so happy to be part of this beautiful community” Ates posted to Facebook. “Your tremendous support, help and prayers will never be forgotten,” he added.
He thanked his neighbours Nicole and Marc Lepage “for keeping the community updated and helping me out to organize the help and support” with the search.
Omer Lavergne, James Parsons, Sam Verlint, Hubert Beaudry, Dale Eastep, Shawn Gingras and Mitch Deschatelets operate farms in the region, and Ates thanked them “for letting me use their lands, equipment, supplying me hay and helping me out to manage the situation.”
Indeed, it took a community to find a missing herd, and Ates is grateful to Anika Brosseau, Chris Maisonneuve, Caroline Marx, Denis Crocker Larocque, Sylvie Larocque, Marie Larocque, Rene Malette, Tammy White-Sutcliffe, Richard White Sutcliffe, and many others who helped with the search.
These people were “with me out there since the beginning” the search, “walking with me in the bush, flying drones, bringing out horses and ATVs to keep track on the trails and patrolling roads.”
Alain Gingras, Richard T Dafoe, Kevin Gravelle, and Steve Anderson were also integral to the search, and “I want all of you to know that your help and support means a lot to me,” Ates said.
Ates is relieved to have his bison home, and grateful to the community for their help. The future of the ranch depended on the return of the herd, as without the animals, the financial forecast of BisON ranch looked bleak.
In 2019 it looked like Ates’ business was receiving a $200,000 grant from the Ministry of Agriculture to help boost agricultural activity in the north.
“But I haven’t received that grant,” Ates said, noting “some issues” came up “during the process” and he “received nothing from the government.”
Without the grant, Ates and his family bootstrapped the endeavour, and thanks to the help of his new community, the family’s investment has a chance to grow.
“I have a large family now and you made this beautiful community my home.”