Restoring plains bison to its native landscapes is not only good for business, but it is also good for the community and its authenticity, an official from Jackson Hole, Wyoming told a group attending the Living with Bison presentation at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies last Friday, Feb. 18.
Tim O’Donoghue, executive director of the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce, said Jackson Hole and the Banff-Bow Valley region share many common traits including environment, economy and culture, including the importance of protected lands and wildlife.
“Our community, whether it is our social structure with culture and arts or economy, has really had a revolution around wildlife. Wildlife and scenery are treasured. People in Jackson Hole feel strongly about staying connected and preserving and protecting the environment,” O’Donoghue said.
But bison is the one thing the two areas don’t share.
The Jackson Hole region, which includes Grand Teton National Park, is home to approximately 900 bison, while Banff National Park, as part of the 2010 Banff Management Plan, is now considering reintroducing wild free-ranging bison.
O’Donoghue said that even though he did not have specific numbers pointing to the financial benefit of bison viewing in the Grand Teton region, a good comparison can be seen in wolves, which were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in 1995.
A University of Montana study has shown that visitors coming to Yellowstone, which is located north of Grand Teton, to see wolves pump $35 million annually into the regional economy.
Bison viewing, meanwhile, has become one of the most popular activities in the Yellowstone region, which sees an average of $590 million in visitor spending annually.
“We do know that bison are wildlife and wildlife are the number one reason why people come to Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone National Park,” O’Donoghue said.
Grand Teton is home to approximately 900 bison, while Yellowstone has up to 4,500 bison, depending on the severity of the winters.
And as bison are what O’Donoghue described as “one of the most watchable forms of wildlife” and a majestic, iconic symbol of the West, bison create a number of other benefits beyond financial.
Having bison in the Banff-Bow Valley region is an opportunity to enhance residents’ quality of life and create a richer and more authentic experience for visitors that “can equate to economic, community and environmental sustainability”, O’Donoghue said.
For example, Jackson Hole is home to the National Museum of Wildlife Art and the sale of wildlife-based artwork has put Jackson Hole galleries in the top-seven in the U.S. for the sale of artwork.
O’Donoghue is not the only voice that sees value in wild, free-ranging bison, nor is Jackson Hole the only place to experience both the economic and cultural benefit that bison bring.
Gord Vaadeland, president of the Sturgeon River Plains Bison Stewards and a rancher whose 10,000-acre ranch is immediately adjacent to Prince Albert National Park, said having bison in the park – while challenging – is rewarding both financially and socially.
“Thanks to the bison we have incorporated an adventure tourism component completely based around the bison and I would say it is financially responsible for putting our ranch back into the black.
“The bison have done a lot for my family,” Vaadeland said during the round-table discussion following O’Donoghue’s presentation.
Bison were not reintroduced to Prince Albert National Park; instead, they arrived at the central Saskatchewan park in 1969 on their own after a 50-member herd was released with no control measures north of the park in the Thunder Hills region.
It was a release that Vaadeland said went “incredibly wrong” as the herd soon began to wander, with 10 to 22 of these animals reaching Prince Albert National Park, where they established the Sturgeon River Plains Bison herd. That herd now numbers about 400 and is the only free-roaming genetically pure plains bison on their original range in Canada.
But bison don’t recognize park boundaries and are coming into conflict on private land, Vaadeland said.
However, even though ranchers, farmers and landowners in the Sturgeon River area continue to have serious concerns about the damage bison do on private land, of 200 landowners recently surveyed in the area, only one thought removing bison was the solution to problems such as damage to crops and fences and disturbances to livestock.
“Others had serious concerns but felt removing bison wasn’t the way to go,” he said.
But it has taken 42 years to reach this point, Vaadeland said, adding the best tool to accepting bison has proven to be the Sturgeon River Plains Bison Stewards, which is comprised of landowners and other stakeholders play a direct role in bison management.
“We work in full concert with Parks Canada and the province on management decisions and on the ground management actions,” he said. “It is a step beyond a typical stakeholder group as we are participating to the highest degree.”
As part of its proposal, which includes identifying two regions of Banff National Park that could sustain bison – the Red Deer River Valley region and the Bow Valley region north of the Trans-Canada Highway and Bow Valley Parkway – the Eleanor Luxton Historical Foundation is suggesting a bison stewardship group will be required.
And both Vaadeland and O’Donoghue emphasized that with bison comes a need for significant and sustained education initiatives.
Concerns and economics aside, Vaadeland is an emphatic champion of the social benefits of having free-roaming bison.
“I can’t overstate the fact of what bison will do for your community, outside of the ecological, outside of the cultural, what they will do for the social fabric of your community and what they have done for the good of (my community) is incredible,” Vaadeland said.
For now, according to Banff National Park Superintendent Kevin Van Tighem, the Eleanor Luxton Historical Foundation proposal is a starting point, an opportunity to begin the discussion about bringing plains bison back to Banff.
“The proposal gives us a chance to have a discussion. At this point, we don’t have a plan to bring bison back to Banff National Park as it is a complicated undertaking but we do need to develop (a plan),” he said during the Living with Bison presentation.
Even though the Banff National Park management plan does give direction to reintroduce bison, that plan also gives direction to do it right and work through the problems first.
“We are going to do it and the question is how and when and we need to figure that out. We need to work with people. We need to think about what happens if they wander into towns. We need to figure out what happens when a bison bull gets in the way of a train,” he said.
In regards to that, Canadian Pacific Railway spokesperson Kevin Hrysak said CPR has no specific concerns about the proposal at this point, as planning is still in its infancy.
“We work closely with Parks Canada on all of these issues, so if there were any concerns, I’m sure, they’d approach us,” he said.