Banff bison herd should remain on the landscape, Parks Canada says in draft pilot report

Bison bolt from the shipping containers they were transported in from Elk Island National Park near Edmonton to the eastern slopes of Banff National Park near Sundre.  (Johane Janelle/Parks Canada - image credit)
Bison bolt from the shipping containers they were transported in from Elk Island National Park near Edmonton to the eastern slopes of Banff National Park near Sundre. (Johane Janelle/Parks Canada - image credit)

The reintroduction of bison to Banff National Park started with a herd of 16 animals brought in from Elk Island National Park in 2017. Over five years, it's swelled to more than 80 animals thriving on the eastern slopes of the Rockies.

After reviewing its reintroduction pilot, Parks Canada is recommending this herd remain on the landscape in a controlled and measured form. A draft report released Wednesday is now ready for public and Indigenous review.

"It's just amazing to see," said Marie-Eve Marchand, executive director of the International Buffalo Relations Institute. "They are interacting, they are living there, they just belong. That's their home."

The bison have roamed free for five years under the close and watchful eye of a Parks Canada team and cultural monitoring by the Stoney Nakoda Nation, which calls the park area Mînî Rhpa Mâkoche.

Researchers were not only watching how the animals fared but also watched how the ecosystem responded to the return of bison.

So far, the herd has grown 33 per cent every year on average — with projections there will be more than 200 bison in the next eight years in Banff.

"This is a significant accomplishment," read the report, noting there are only five other isolated wild bison herds in North America. "They are rarely subject to natural selection. Banff National Park, with its full suite of native large carnivores, represents a unique and rare opportunity where this can still happen."

Now, Parks Canada is engaging Canadians regarding the draft report.

It's a chance, Marchand says, for the International Buffalo Relations Institute and signatories of the Buffalo Treaty to make this reintroduction a full success.

Karsten Heuer/Parks Canada
Karsten Heuer/Parks Canada

Bison roamed throughout the park up until 1800, vanishing from the landscape by the 1850s due to overhunting, according to Parks Canada.

The only presence on the land bison had after that period was in a paddock. Parks Canada housed a "display herd" near the Banff townsite until 1997, when it was closed because the enclosure interfered with the movement of wildlife.

"We have to remember that bison have been in the landscape for thousands of years," said Marchand. "There's only a little glimpse of 150 years that they missed. When we think about it, it's only a few generations. We're repairing a wrong, we're repairing something that's really important as we move to and as we think about reconciliation."

Bison Belong, a group Marchand was a part of, began pushing to bring the animal back to the landscape more than a decade ago, in 2009.

In 2015, the federal government announced the $6.4-million project.

Two years later, the historic delivery arrived in white shipping containers, driven and airlifted into place.

Monitoring efforts 

There were some stakeholder concerns about the wild herd roving free:

  • Some were concerned about possible conflicts with visitors and backcountry hikers.

  • Cattle ranchers worried about bison carrying disease or parasites wandering into their livestock grazing allotments, many of which were about 20 kilometres from the bison reintroduction zone.

  • Trail riding outfitters and guides with permits to offer horseback riding trips through the reintroduction zone had concerns about bison encounters.

  • Hunters were worried the park's "drift fences" would impede wildlife movement, and reduce the number of wildlife leaving the park's boundaries.

Bison explored an area spanning 257 square kilometres within the 1-200-square-kilometre zone. A majority of the exploration happened in the first year they were free to roam and were more curious about the new surroundings.

For the most part, bison stayed within the reintroduction zone and were happy to roam within 30 kilometres of where they were released. There were four curious male bison who left the zone and had to be captured and relocated elsewhere or destroyed.

One aspect that surprised Marchand was how the herd adapted to their new alpine setting, especially in summer months.

"I've seen it myself because I've tried to find them," she said. "We think about mountains down in the plains … it's interesting how much they choose to go up high. Those little shoots in the spring in the alpine, they're really nutritious. So, I mean, if you go for nutrient values, those are really awesome. No mosquitoes, great views — all the things you would think are enjoyable."

In one case, a young bison bull approached several horses in a camp setting, but he kept moving on eastward without incident. Parks Canada euthanized this particular bison, in accordance with their plan guidelines.

Two bison died of natural causes during the span of the pilot — young calves hunted by wolves.

Parks Canada
Parks Canada

To see how other wildlife responded to the bison reintroduction, Parks Canada collected GPS data from the Ya Ha Tinda elk project.

Research was also done on bighorn sheep in the area.

While parks tried to get a good sense of how the wolf population responded to the herd, GPS collars were difficult to track because of high wolf mortality — mainly outside of the park.

More is being done to research the effects of this herd on the Banff National Park ecosystem, but according to the Parks Canada report, bison reintroduction in other jurisdictions has already proved to be a positive for other wildlife, soil and vegetation.

"Bison are a climate champion and a biodiversity champion," Marchand said.