Bison grazing at Waterton Lakes National Park (Travel Alberta)
Bison are the largest land animals in the Americas. Vast herds of these mighty grazers once wandered the prairies, shaping ecological communities and human populations alike. They also roamed into the mountains, including the montane and sub-alpine meadows along Alberta’s eastern slopes. Native to the lands which would eventually become Banff National Park, these iconic creatures were pushed to near extinction by overhunting in the late 1800’s.
Today, only a few pockets of plains bison remain in the wild, but recovery efforts are aiming to fix that. Since the early 1900’s, Parks Canada has maintained a small population of bison at Elk Island National Park, near Lamont, Alberta. In recent years, healthy individuals have been transferred from this herd to stage recoveries in other areas, including Saskatchewan’s Grasslands National Park of Canada and Montana’s American Prairie Reserve. Building on these past successes, Parks Canada is now planning to bring bison back to Banff’s eastern slopes.
Bison reintroduction into Banff National Park will provide a number of benefits. As dominant grazers on the landscape, bison shape vegetation communities and help to maintain natural ecosystems by limiting tree and shrub expansion into grassy meadows. They are also an historic Canadian symbol, with cultural significance for Indigenous communities of past and present. Bison recovery will renew these important relationships, and provide new opportunities for connection with the visiting public.
Parks Canada proposes a staged approach to bringing the bison back. Starting in early 2017, a small herd will be brought from Elk Island National Park to a temporary enclosure in Banff. This “soft release” will permit biologists to work hands-on with the animals, conditioning them to their new environment and monitoring for any disease. After a period of time and evaluation, the bison will be released to roam freely in a 1,189 km2 reintroduction zone.
To learn more about bison reintroduction to Banff National Park, please join us Monday, December 12, from 6:30–8:45, as the Canadian Mountain Network celebrates International Mountain Day with Bison Belong by hosting a series of experts to discuss this historic conservation initiative.
Free tickets for this, and other International Mountain Day Festival events, are available at www.internationalmountainday.ca.
Bison at Elk Island National Park (Eppo Erkes/Travel Alberta)