Municipal District of Bighorn councillors urged utmost caution in regard to Parks Canada’s proposal to reintroduce plains bison to Banff National Park.
Two councillors voiced concerns about potential disease and agricultural borders the bison would share along MD land at a Nov. 8 council meeting to Karsten Heuer, Parks Canada’s bison reintroduction project manager.
The area of concern is specific to grassy areas domestic cattle and other pets and livestock graze on near the Panther Valley on Banff’s eastern slopes, where the bison will be reintroduced into an enclosed pasture area early 2017.
Parks Canada has documented the chances of the wild bison introducing or being exposed to diseases are estimated to be “negligible-to-low,” but councillors Erik Butters and Paul Ryan agreed there is never “zero risk” in these situations.
Parks’ proposal would place a small herd of wild bison in Banff in 2017 in a five-year pilot project for “ecological restoration, inspiring discovery and cultural reconnection” and to have a clearer understanding in regard to the feasibility of managing Banff bison in the long-term.
The bison would be a disease-free herd from Alberta’s Elk Island National Park – a brucellosis and bovine tuberculosis (TB)-free area for more than 40 years.
A disease like TB is most commonly transmitted between species through ingestion from an infected animal. There is no cure for the chronic respiratory disease, which causes the animal to become weak.
Just a single TB-infected cow would be disastrous for a farmer – financially and sentimentally, said Butters, whose family owns and operates a cattle ranch in the MD.
An entire herd would have to be put to slaughter, along with other livestock and pets.
The disease in cattle can also cause restrictions in beef exports and further testing of the animals.
Butters said he believes Parks has done its due diligence, but ultimately the only folk with “skin in the game” are cattle producers.
“It’s much more of a disaster than an economic one … you have to eliminate (the rancher’s) cows, horses, dogs and cats to deal with (TB),” said Butters.
“There is a huge repercussion if this thing gets out of hand … I think you’re doing what you need to, but there is no such thing as zero risk.”
Parks has held meetings with the Alberta Beef Producers organization, said Heuer, and said they are willing to depopulate the herd if a disease like TB emerges.
“In the very unlikely event that TB is detected, we are committed to depopulate it,” said Heuer. “(…) this commitment is part of this project.”
Alberta Beef Producers did not return calls from the Outlook for a comment.
Reeve Dene Cooper said he believes Parks has “gone about it in as careful a way as you can manage” the reintroduction proposal.
The bison herd will be penned in an 1,189-square-kilometre area with “wildlife-friendly fencing” and be subject to regular disease monitoring.
About a third of the animals will be fitted with radio collars.
Heuer said one of the challenges with the small herd would be getting the animals to associate with their new surroundings as home. Bringing in some pregnant bison cows may help towards them becoming settled and adjusting to their new environment.
Should the bison ever get beyond the “reintroduction zone,” then Parks would be in “active recapture mode.
“It increases in urgency and severity to recapture those animals … it’ll be extremely unlikely they get out,” said Heuer.