BANFF – A sick domestic bison used to train horses and riders as part of a $6.4 million bison reintroduction program in Banff National Park has been put down.
The animal was one of four domestic bison kept at Parks Canada’s Ya Ha Tinda Ranch to help train riders in stockmanship skills to herd wild bison and get horses used to being around the new herd.
Parks Canada officials say a necropsy on the bison ruled out serious diseases such as tuberculosis and brucellosis – diseases ranchers fear could be passed on to cattle – but samples have been sent to a lab for further testing to try to determine cause of death.
“Over time its body condition was deteriorating and it wasn’t maintaining body weight. The other three domestic bison remain perfectly healthy,” said Bill Hunt, resource conservation manager for Banff National Park.
“The reason for body condition remains uncertain, but samples were collected and sent for analysis. It could be genetic. It could be what you call a runt. We just don’t know and we may get inconclusive results.”
It was originally thought the animal had picked up a parasite, but following de-worming medicine, samples taken showed this was unlikely the cause of the animal’s deteriorating body condition.
“We monitored it for a number of weeks and, on the advice of the vet, a decision was made to euthanize it and get tests done,” said Hunt.
One of the tools used to manage the reintroduced bison herd is stockmanship with riders on horseback. Domestic bison were brought to Ya Ha Tinda to train horses and riders to work safely and effectively around wild bison.
Parks Canada is looking at whether or not to continue with the domestic bison program.
The animals are bought from a rancher and sold back at a slightly higher rate.
“Once these ones cycle out we may not replace them,” said Hunt, noting this is the second group of domestic bison at the ranch.
“Keeping bison isn’t something we want to do at the ranch, but it was important for getting prepared for wild bison on the landscape.”
In late July, Banff’s new bison herd was released from a fenced pasture into a 1,200 square kilometre reintroduction zone covering the Panther and Dormer valleys on the eastern slopes.
Approximately eight kilometres of adjustable fencing was installed in 15 different locations in an attempt to keep the animals inside the larger bison zone – but two bulls went through all obstacles onto provincial lands.
Tough decisions were made last month to kill one bull and relocate another to a paddock in Waterton Lakes National Park after they travelled north and eastward beyond the park boundary to within a day’s walk of private lands.
The reintroduction plan commits to keeping bison off private lands.
Since then, Parks Canada has modified its herding techniques and expanded some of the strategic fencing intended to keep the herd within the reintroduction zone.
The herd now consists of 10 adult females, four adult bulls, 10 yearlings, and nine calves, totalling 33 animals. All animals are within the core reintroduction area, within about 15 kilometres of the release site.
For thousands of years, plains bison roamed the plains of North America. Their numbers were as high as 30 million, but bison nearly went extinct in the 19th Century within a single human lifetime due to overhunting and slaughter.
GPS collars have been put on adult bison and ear tag transmitters on last year’s calves.
Monitoring the satellite collars, Parks Canada will keep tabs on the bison and herd, haze, or bait them as necessary to help steer their movements to encourage them to develop an affinity within their new home range.
In 2022, Parks Canada will assess whether to continue or abandon the project.