Bison return to Banff National Park after more than a century

After more than a century, plains bison are once again roaming Banff’s eastern slopes.

In late January, 16 wild bison were loaded into shipping containers in Elk Island National Park and airlifted to a remote valley in Banff National Park, where officials are attempting to re-establish a once-thriving herd.

Parks Canada called it “a historic and cultural triumph,” and conservationists agreed.

“This is a great day for Banff National Park. It’s a great day for Canada and frankly, it’s one of the great days for wildlife conservation in the history of North America,” Harvey Locke, a conservationist, writer and trustee with the Eleanor Luxton Historical Foundation, told CBC News.

After years of research and preparation, those involved in the project are just happy to see some hooves on the ground. Due to factors such as overhunting, the animals haven’t grazed the valleys of Banff since before the park was established in 1885.

Ten pregnant females and six young bulls were released into an enclosed pasture in Panther Valley, where they’ll be closely monitored with radio collars for the next 16 months. The hope is that the herd will double to more than 30 bison before mid-2018, when they will be completely free to roam a 1,200-square-kilometre range. According to Parks Canada biologist David Gummer, the land could potentially support hundreds of the animals.

But the long-term goal of re-establishing a new population of bison won’t just contribute to international conservation efforts, it will also impact the rest of the ecosystem.

“The landscape has been missing [bison] and all the other species in between, so that’s why we’re bringing them back,” Marie-Eve Marchand, a contributor to the Bison Belong initiative, told CTV News.

Despite their long absence from the park, these dominant grazers were once a keystone species in the region, which means that they not only helped shape the park’s valleys and grassy slopes, but they also played a crucial role in how well the ecosystem functioned. In fact, archeological records have shown that bison roamed what is now Banff National Park for more than 10,000 years, which is one reason experts believe the animals will have no trouble adapting to their new environment.

Within hours, the animals were feeding and drinking out of the trough, and the morning after they were released a couple of the bulls were rubbing horns and bucking, which bison project manager Karsten Heuer told reporters “is a good sign that they were feeling calm and settled.”

The relocation is the first step in a five-year trial project that will inform future decisions regarding the restoration of wild bison in Banff. Over the course of the project, Parks Canada will continue to evaluate the health of the herd, their movements, survival and reproductive rates, and how well they’re able to adapt to the environment and predation from wolf packs and bears.

“If it works, we are actually setting the seeds for just one of four plains bison populations in North America that are actually interacting with their environment,” Heuer said.