Podcast episode 5.1: Restoration of culture and land through bison reintroduction


Annie Webb


Dec 15, 2022


Dec 15, 2022


For nearly 200 years, colonial policies have led to bison species being hunted to the verge of extinction. This is a result of European settlers overhunting the bison to run train lines for colonization. This rapid elimination of bison from the land damaged all systems of life, including relationships between Indigenous Nations and bison.

In Banff National Park, there had not been bison since. But in 2017, Parks Canada released 16 bison transported from Elk Island National Park into the northeast section of the park. As of the fall of 2022, the herd is estimated to have grown to between 85 and 90 animals, including 16 new calves born in the spring of 2022.

This inaugural episode of Season 5 of the Canadian Mountain Podcast focuses on the cultural aspects of bison reintroduction in Banff National Park. Reintroducing and reconnecting bison to their natural habitat is not just about biodiversity or positive impacts on the environment. There are also meaningful cultural implications, which is what the Stoney Nakota Nations have worked to address throughout the bison reintroduction.

Listen to the podcast here:

In April 2022, Stoney Nakota Nations published a report titled, “Enhancing the Reintroduction of Plains Bison in Banff National Park Through Cultural Monitoring and Traditional Knowledge”, which marked the completion of this CMN-funded research project. Bill Snow assisted in coordinating the ceremonies for the Stoney Nakota Nations for the bison reintroduction at Banff and Elk Island National Parks. He has also been the consultation manager for the Stoney Nakota First Nations since 2012. The Canadian Mountain Podcast sat down with our first guest, Bill Snow, at CMN’s 2022 Knowledge Sharing Summit.

The report details the cultural aspects of the bison reintroduction in Banff National Park, as an important extension to the environmental assessment of the bison reintroduction completed in 2016. The bison reintroduction began in 2017 as a five-year pilot project and then received funding in 2019, which included support from CMN.

Snow says that one of the most important things to understand about bison is their relationship to the land, and their ability of keeping landscapes more biodiverse. For example, bison hairs are more like wool and are sought after by birds and small animals to line their nests and burrows, as it offers excellent insulation, significantly increasing their survival and their offspring’s.

Bison also fertilize the landscape with their droppings, propagating grasses and wildflowers. As they have evolved with the landscape longer than cattle, bison droppings have been found to be more beneficial for the soil and insect diversity than cattle droppings. Other animals, such as deer, elk and other ungulates benefit from following bison, finishing what they leave. For example, in winter, bison make tracks in snow ahead of the other ungulates, which can then move more easily in the landscape. One interesting feature of bison are wallows (earthen depressions), which are created when they roll, creating pools of water in the landscape and offering habitat to a diversity of amphibians.

Wildlife has a cultural function for Indigenous peoples, including in the way that they live on the land. Ceremonially, bison are very important to the Stoney Nakota people and the relationship with bison touches on many aspects of their lives. For example, bison was a staple in Indigenous peoples’ diets, which was often dried and made into pemmican, a traditional survival food. Reintroducing bison has many teachings: living in harmony with the land, and respecting the land, animals and each other.

Snow explains that this research project is based on the concept of biculturalism, which is the combining of Western and traditional knowledges. A result of biculturalism is cultural monitoring, which includes ceremony, planning, elder interviews, field work, elder reconnection meetings and outreach, which are the steps resulting from combining knowledges.

This bison cultural monitoring study is the first one of this scale in Banff National Park. Snow cautions that there are still many unknowns: This is why ongoing cultural monitoring and more research are needed to understand impacts on the landscape, wildlife and people. However, positive impacts of bison have been observed on vegetation, water sources, insects, biodiversity etc. Ultimately, bison make landscapes more biodiverse and resilient, and offer many cultural and ecological benefits.

Bison project photo

Photos from CMN project: Enhancing the reintroduction of Plains Bison through the inclusion of cultural monitoring and traditional knowledge in Banff National Park (William Snow)

Bison project 2

The second guest on the podcast was Marie-Eve Marchand, who discusses the ecological and cultural relevance of bison returning to the Rocky Mountain ecosystem. Marie-Eve was an organizer for the Bison Belong initiative, established to reconnect the ecological, cultural and historical systems that buffalo hold to the land at Banff National Park.

She clarified the differences between the terms, “buffalo” and “bison”, which are often used synonymously. “Buffalo” is more commonly used among Indigenous peoples to denote the bigger spirit of the animal, while “bison” is more often used for the individual animal, especially in a scientific context.

Marchand also described the differences between the impacts of cattle vs bison on the landscape. Bison wallow (as described previously), which has far-reaching impacts on the landscape, and they also do not require as much water as cattle. Bison graze differently than cattle, leaving plant roots. Bison also have wool, which is the second warmest wool in North America after muskox, increasing the survival of species that use it to insulate their nests and burrows.

Unlike cattle, bison are native species on our landscapes, so specific dung beetles have co-evolved with bison to use their dung. One bison dung patty can host from 100-1000 species, on which many other species depend on. Therefore, by taking away bison from the landscape, we took away the food source for thousands of species.

The reintroduction of bison has been healing for Indigenous peoples, reconnecting so many things that were weaved together to create balance and a path towards reconciliation. Bison bring joy to Indigenous Peoples, facilitate the exchange of intergenerational knowledge and help educate children and youth in their cultural heritage.

Listen to the podcast here

👋 Hi there, Canadian Mountain Network uses cookies 🍪 to analyze our website traffic and to understand where our visitors are coming from. See our Privacy Policy for details.