Plans to reintroduce bison into Banff National Park are moving along as planned, according to officials with Parks Canada, and this summer the idea is to locate several of the species in the backcountry so horses may get used to them.
Dave McDonough, superintendent of the Banff field unit, referred to the plans for a few bison to be located at Ya Ha Tinda ranch in Banff National Park during the 18th annual planning forum earlier in February.
McDonough said backcountry horse riding stakeholders in the discussion leading up to reintroducing bison have indicated that horses not accustomed to bison can be startled by the animals in the wild.
“We are moving forward on (reintroduction) and we are on schedule,” McDonough said. “We are targeting to have bison on the ground by mid-winter 2017 with a possible release from a temporary paddock.
“We are taking our time because we want to make sure we do it right and respect stakeholders.”
Stakeholder concerns range from animals leaving the national park and travelling onto provincial land to how they will affect ungulate movement and backcountry horse trail riders concerned about horses encountering bison in the wild for the first time.
“There are legitimate concerns,” McDonough said. “Bison are large animals; I have worked in Elk Island and if you get up close and personal they are big, so we want to make sure we manage it properly.
“This summer we will be finishing up the environmental assessment of the project and contingency plans … we want to have those plans in place so if something happens we can respond quickly.”
With respect to horses, he said a small number of bison will be located in a pasture area at Ya Ha Tinda in the backcountry, as that is a popular area used by horse riders.
“One thing that was raised is that horses that are not used to bison are quite afraid of them, so we are going to bring a small number of bison to Ya Ha Tinda ranch,” McDonough said. “It is an area that is a real focal point for horse users, so not only our own staff and our horses can get used to bison. But we will also have the opportunity for recreational users in the area to allow their horses … to get used to bison.”
Bison roamed the area now known as Banff National Park for thousands of years and were the main herbivore of this ecosystem before they were extirpated in the 1840s. McDonough said crews are hard at work to understand how bison will be managed on the landscape – including the use of fencing that will continue to let other species travel through.
“One important concern from hunters and the province of Alberta is the permeability of our fencing for ungulates such as bighorn sheep, elk and deer,” he said.
Prescribed fire work in the national park is also aimed at aiding the reintroduction of bison, with work done in the Panther and Dormer valleys to improve forage inside the park. Fire is another key approach for encouraging the animals to stay in the park.
Last March, local MP Blake Richards announced an investment of $6.4 million over five years that will directly contribute to conservation work and specifically bison reintroduction. The plan hopes to see 30 to 50 young bison brought to Banff from the Elk Island National Park herd
As for locating several bison to Ya Ha Tinda, the Outlook requested to speak with project managers on Feb. 16 and did not receive an interview before press deadline this week.
The ranch itself covers almost 4,000 hectares along the Red Deer River and is comprised of natural grassland and mixed forest. It is owned and managed by Parks Canada and is the only federally operated working horse ranch in Canada.