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After over a century absence, plains bison return to Banff National Park

It was more than fitting that Parks Canada’s announcement that plains bison have indeed returned to the landscape of Banff National Park was held at the corner of Buffalo Street and Banff Avenue.
Parks Canada releases bison into Banff National Park.
Parks Canada releases bison into Banff National Park.

It was more than fitting that Parks Canada’s announcement that plains bison have indeed returned to the landscape of Banff National Park was held at the corner of Buffalo Street and Banff Avenue.

Fitting, because among the natural history collection in the Banff Park Museum, where the celebration of the successful translocation was held, a handful of plains bison heads stared down from the walls and paintings on the wall showed scenes of bison being hunted – activity that took the species to the brink of extinction.

Free-roaming bison – plains bison as opposed to wood bison – have not been part of the landscape that forms Banff National Park today in more than a century – 140 to 150 years to be more precise.

The national park itself formed in 1885 as Rocky Mountain National Park, after bison were driven from what once was part of its natural range. But the living history carries on with longtime Banffites like Harvey Locke, who was brought to tears of joy like many attending the announcement.

Locke, a trustee of the Eleanor Luxton Historical Foundation which supported founding of Bison Belong, and author of The Last of the Buffalo Return to the Wild, said the return of bison is an amazingly rich and meaningful thing to be doing.

“I think what it means, not just for me but for others as well, is we did something very wrong when we eliminated bison from the landscape and now we are doing something very right and that is deeply satisfying. It is inspiring, it is positive,” he said.

“For me, my family came to the Bow Valley when there were herds of wild buffalo here and it has been a story in my family for over 100 years. That is part of what belongs here and to see it actually coming back is huge for me.”

In his book published last year by local publisher Summerthought, Locke wrote about how it was one of the national park’s first superintendents, Howard Douglas, and Banff’s own Norman Luxton who helped preserve the very last 86 plains bison left in existence in 1907.

Those genetically pure animals were purchased by the Canadian Government and brought back to the national park before members of that last herd eventually ended up at Elk Island National Park near Edmonton. It was from that herd that Parks Canada chose 16 bison to bring to Banff last Sunday (Jan. 29), spending the first night at Ya Ha Tinda Ranch before being airlifted to a soft-release pasture in the Panther River valley.

Banff’s current superintendent Dave McDonough said it was the proudest moment for him personally to be wearing the uniform of a Parks Canada employee.

“A keystone species has returned to one of our nation’s most iconic places and it is a perfect way to mark Canada’s 150th anniversary of confederation,” McDonough said. “I am proud to say history has come full circle and wild bison are again here in Banff National Park.”

The impetus for the project came from a proposal in the draft 2010 Banff National Park management plan and McDonough said since that time the federal agency has worked with stakeholders, other government agencies and first nations to develop and refine the approach taken. It has also been accompanied by a $6.5 million grant from the federal government announced in March 2015 to undertake the five-year project.

One particularly significant aspect of the reintroduction project for all involved has been inclusion of Indigenous Canadians in the process.

“I would also like to thank and extend my deepest gratitude to the Indigenous communities who have blessed the new herd through ceremonies in both Elk Island National Park and Banff National Park,” McDonough said. “We look forward to continuing to build these relationships to facilitate new opportunities for Indigenous people to participate in this landmark project.”

He said Parks has plans to develop creative ways for Canadians to connect with the return of bison to Banff, with those parks that have plains or wood bison already like Elk Island setting an example for interpretive elements.

But when it comes to actually getting outside and visiting the new herd in Banff, bison reintroduction project manager Karsten Heuer said it is not a day hike, but travelling into the backcountry – two days on foot, cross-country ski or horseback.

“People are welcome to do that … but they have to realize it is a pretty big undertaking.”

Heuer also said Parks Canada would work on preparing educational programming around coexisting with bison, similar to what the agency already does for visitors and residents of the park around elk calving and grizzly bears.

“Parks Canada has a long track record of how we prepare visitors to coexist with wildlife,” he said.

North America’s largest land mammal, evidence of bison across vast ranges of the continent, before European settlers and their colonial mindset of progress swept across the landscape removing whatever was in their way, can be seen in early historical accounts of explorers, archaeological evidence and Indigenous knowledge.

In 2004, Banff businessman Peter Poole was breaking ground on a new development on Bear Street when they discovered two 6,000-year-old bison skulls, reaffirming long held local knowledge that bison lived in this valley for thousands of years before settlers arrived. It was a connection that Bison Belong tuned to when it launched as an organization to support bringing bison back to the national park.

“Our business was pleased to support the movement,” Poole said about Bison Belong’s social movement to support reintroduction. “There were fun elements, like baking bison cookies at our Wild Flour Bakery, but what is really meaningful is that through the bison restoration effort we are starting to honour the deep knowledge of Ktunaza, Blackfoot, Nakoda, Creek, Métis and Dene Elders of this valley and the culture of the buffalo. As a community, I think we are starting to listen.”

The involvement of Indigenous knowledge in the reintroduction was demonstrated in fall when the Bison Treaty was honoured two years after it was originally signed and 20 First Nations participated in the ceremonies, as well as adding even more new signatures to the important document.

In 2015, the treaty was signed by Stoney Nakoda Wesley Band Chief Ernest Wesley, Chief Kurt Buffalo of the Samson Cree and Chief Aaron Young of the Stoney Nakoda Chiniki Band. The treaty is one of cooperation, renewal and restoration, but of also culturally recognizing bison as an animal closely tied with Indigenous cultures.

It is also an animal closely tied with conservation and those connections ran deep with the crew that was tasked with developing the operational plan for the translocation and undertaking it, said Heuer. He added the tremendously emotional job for his team went smoothly.

“I think that is a testament certainly to Parks Canada staff; it is a testament to good planning, good research; it is a testament to the animals themselves, which are amazingly intelligent, robust creatures,” he said. “I was just out yesterday (Feb. 5) to where they are now and they have blended right into that landscape and look like they have always been there – completely at ease and relaxed, which is very neat.”

Of course, he said, many people remember the herd of bison that lived at the base of Castle Mountain for 100 years. The captive herd, said Heuer, is different for a variety of important reasons, including they were essentially zoo animals and were also wood bison, a different species to what is being reintroduced in Banff right now.

The translocation had several aspects created by Parks staff to mitigate the effects of being placed in specially designed shipping containers and driven from Elk Island to Ya Ha Tinda, then picked up by a heavy lift helicopter and flown the final 25 kilometres into the backcountry. Heuer pointed out that each bison had rubber tubing taped to its horns to prevent them from injuring each other during the journey, although each animal was sedated before the trip.

“We did a few things that are innovative and have never been done before,” he said. “I am really happy we did this in retrospect, there were a few animals that did not really settle down during the road trip.”

With 16 bison – six bulls and 10 pregnant females – in the soft release pasture, the project has entered its first phase of three, according to Heuer, and with translocation now complete, an important first step has been checked off the to-do list.

The bison will spend 16 months in the pasture, with two Parks staff on site in a warden cabin to ensure there is water in the troughs, provide hay as feed and record data before they are released to roam freely in summer 2018 inside a 12,000 kilometre reintroduction zone.

A detailed environmental impact analysis was released in the fall of 2016, and showed the preparations taken and analysis of the ecological impacts of returning a missing keystone species to a specific geographic area.

Parks Canada’s resource conservation manager Bill Hunt said while many people think of large predators like grizzlies and wolves as keystone species, prey species are also capable of making landscape level changes to their environment; beaver and bison, for example.

“Keystone is defined as any species that has a greater ecological impact,” Hunt said. “What we are finding out about bison is that they have a similar role to play. They in effect modify and change the landscape they live in by their grazing and the way in which they dig holes or create hollows; all of it contributes to the food chain.”

When it comes to the bison herd connecting with its new home, Heuer said the key is to facilitate that process right now through females calving in spring. It is through the process of having their young that bison “anchor” to a location, he said.

“Obviously, with calves being born there, it is where life begins for them, they know nothing else,” he said. “With the young females, we targeted two and three year old females – they haven’t really had a lot of time to anchor to Elk Island in comparison to a five year or older cow bison.”

Bison ranchers and experts in reintroduction of the animal in other parts of North America, he added, have advised that once a herd has had a chance to calve and anchor to a location, it stays there and that is what Parks Canada officials want with this new herd.

In the event that the herd, or members of it, wander to the edges of the 12,000 square kilometre reintroduction zone in the remote eastern slopes, there are strategically placed fences (eight kilometres of wildlife friendly fencing) and gates for hikers and horse riders to prevent them using trails that lead into provincial and private lands to the east. Hunt said the geography of the valley they chose lends itself to preventing the bison from heading in directions they shouldn’t.

While a lot of planning and measuring of quantitative aspects that represent the current ecological situation of the reintroduction zone has occurred, it will also continue, according to Heuer.

Biological measures will continue to be observed in relation to the bison’s health, but how its presence affects other species will also be measured for the five-year reintroduction project to determine what effect bison have on their environment.

Bison hair is an excellent natural insulator and has been scientifically proven to help increase mortality rates of songbirds that use it in their nests, making songbird numbers a measurement Parks will look at. So will mortality and excursions into provincial lands and how they interact with a nearby wolf pack.

“It is one of many things we will be keeping track of in the initial five years of the project,” Heuer said in relation to wolves and how they interact with the new herd on the landscape. “We have a whole series of performance measures and targets that we will be evaluating after five years to see how feasible it is to continue with longer term bison restoration on the landscape.”


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