Bison return to Wanuskewin Heritage Park

Bison used to walk the lands of the Wanuskewin Heritage Park for thousands of years. 

Now, plains bison are back walking those lands, just outside of Saskatoon, courtesy of a $5 million private donation to the park and an initiative it undertook in 2017 called Thundering Ahead.

"The bison that have arrived from Grasslands National Park will establish Wanuskewin's conservation herd," the park's CEO Darlene Brander said in a news release. 

The news release said the bison that were recently released come from the Grasslands National Park and will join a group of bison with genes that can be traced back to the bison herds at Yellowstone National Park in the United States. 

Felix Thomas, a member of Wanuskewin's board of directors, said the project truly started 40 years ago but the infrastructure and organization just wasn't there to make it happen.

He noted that through the Thundering Ahead campaign, Wanuskewin was hoping to obtain calves from Grasslands National Park.

"It just happened that we had an opportunity to get a second group of animals that are descendants from Yellowstone animals and we made that happen," Thomas said. 

"Wanuskewin went from just trying to get a small herd established and now we're kind of on the top end of the heap here, in terms of the quality of animals that we got." 

Thomas said down the road, the park will look to bring more bison into the gene pool.

Bryan Eneas/CBC

Brander said thinking 200 years into the future, she sees the bison herd as "healthy and robust." 

She said the donation of $5 million made by the Brownlee Family Foundation gave the park the foundation it needed to get to that healthy and robust point and helped in getting the bison to the park.

Wanuskewin Heritage Park is seeking a UNESCO world heritage site designation and Brander said the return of the bison makes the park an interesting place to visit and contributes to that goal.

"It certainly provides opportunities to develop world-class programing," she said. "We want to ensure that we have world-class programing that provides enhanced learning opportunities and the ability to draw people from all over the world to the park."

Right now, the park has a goal of earning the UNESCO designation by 2022, Brander said. 

She said that may be pushed back to 2023 because those in charge of the submission want to submit a quality application for the designation.

Brander also noted that there are two other sites in Canada that are applying for the UNESCO designation and Wanuskewin may have to wait its turn in the application process.