Bison are being reintroduced in Alberta. Here’s why it’s a big deal

When visitors venture through Métis Crossing, a heritage park an hour and half from Edmonton, Alta., they can expect an immersive experience in Métis culture, from cultural interpretation tours to workshops on archery, beading and many other Métis crafts. While the lodge is temporarily closed because of the pandemic, when visitors return they can expect to see another key element to Métis culture: the bison.

Métis Crossing, the first cultural interpretation centre in Alberta, has partnered with Visions, Hopes, and Dreams, a private ranch and wildlife park, to form Visions, Hopes and Dreams at Métis Crossing Wildlife Park. In this joint venture, three subspecies of bison were reintroduced to their native habitat at Métis Crossing.

“Métis Crossing is the realization of a dream, decades in the making, and this new partnership pushes us one step closer to fulfilling that dream,” says Juanita Marois, CEO of the cultural centre.

Photo by Elizabeth Warkentin

Métis Crossing is located along the North Saskatchewan river in one of the first locations where Métis people began to settle in Alberta, says Marois. The Métis arrived in the area between the 1860s and 1880s, and it was one of the first locations where Métis began adopting agricultural practices instead of being a transient society based largely around hunting and trapping, she explains.

Across the prairies, the buffalo hunt was central to Métis culture. “The people would come together, they would elect a leader, they’d make laws, and they’d enforce those laws. So it’s really the basis of not just our food system, but also our economic system, and our government and judicial systems,” says Marois, adding that the largest bison hunt gathering included around 1,600 people.“It was nation building at its finest, and obviously a very important part of what we wanted to share.”

Bison historically roamed the 512-acre area that now comprises the cultural park, but were locally extirpated in around 1865, largely due to over hunting. Now, woods bison, plains bison, and white bison (16 of each) as well as elk, white elk, and Percheron horses will be returning, and all animals are kept in paddocks within the park. “It’s meant to be a very natural setting for them,” says Marois. “They have trees, they have water, they’ll have everything in there.”

Wild profile: meet the bison

Additionally, Marois hopes that by reintroducing these animals, they’ll transform the landscape to more closely resemble the native grasslands that once covered the prairies. As an added benefit, Marois says that native grassland is a much more effective carbon sink than the canola or wheat fields that dominate much of Alberta’s landscape.

Marois says that this partnership with Visions, Hopes, and Dreams is also an important step in reconciliation. “For us, reconciliation happens in the day-to-day activities. It happens when people work together as equals and they create things together that are better than they would’ve been apart.” Additionally, Marois says the partnership with Visions, Hopes, and Dreams is just the beginning, and she hopes to collaborate with other ranchers to continue the restorative agricultural practices at Métis Crossing.

Bison return to Banff National Park after more than a century

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