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Banff bison bull killed, other relocated

BANFF – The second of two bulls which wandered onto provincial lands from a bison relocation project in Banff National Park was captured and relocated to Waterton, Sunday (Aug. 19).
Bison Release Selects_20180728-_DSC0437_DRafla Photos_LOWRES

BANFF – The second of two bulls which wandered onto provincial lands from a bison relocation project in Banff National Park was captured and relocated to Waterton, Sunday (Aug. 19).

Another bull, which had wandered further afield onto provincial land on Aug. 16, was destroyed and its remains dispersed on site.

The two bulls were part of a $6.4 million project to re-introduce bison to the wild in the national park with a core herd of 16 moved to Banff National Park’s Panther River valley from Elk Island National Park. The pair of bulls left a 1,200 square kilometre reintroduction zone on July 29, causing concerns for public safety and livestock.

In response, the provincial government instituted a special bison area which will help allay concerns that bison wandering from Banff onto provincial lands could be shot by hunters, being that they were previously unprotected in the province.

“This iconic species is important to Albertans and other Canadians, and it has fundamental cultural, material, and spiritual importance to Indigenous peoples,” said MLA Cam Westhead.

“I’ve worked closely with Minister Phillips in connection with the bison reintroduction project. A ministerial order has been issued so this herd is now protected under law from harvest by hunters while roaming on provincial land adjacent to Banff National Park.

“This area has been designated the Upper Red Deer River Special Bison Area. There is more work to be done on their legal status, and I will continue working with Minister Phillips, Parks Canada, and other stakeholders to make this reintroduction a success.

In explaining the travels of bison from the park, Bill Hunt, resource conservation manager for the Banff Field Unit, said “two bulls moved out of the area as they explored habitat outside Banff National Park.

“Recently they both left the ranch (Ya Ha Tinda) area independently, with one trending northward and the other moving directly east.”

The northward roaming bull was put down, said Hunt, because it had moved too far out of the park and onto provincial land used for cattle grazing and a short distance away from private land. As well, it would have been too dangerous to the animal to fly it to Waterton from such a distance and there was the possibility that, had the bull returned to the herd, it may have led greater numbers astray.

On Sunday, Parks staff captured the eastward moving bull.

“This was a difficult operation, but with help from a skilled contract team from Bighorn Helicopters it all went well and the large bull was successfully immobilized and flown to a horse trailer, which allowed us to transport it to a bison paddock in Waterton Lakes National Park,” said Hunt.

The bull was flown from where it was immobilized to the horse trailer in a bag, hobbled and blindfolded, with its ears plugged, on a long line beneath a helicopter. Once at the trailer, the immobilizing drug was reversed, water was put on the bull to cool it down, then it was driven to Waterton.

“The bull is in the winter pasture in Waterton and is not visible to the public,” said Hunt. “This operation was only possible because we were able to focus all our resources to capture this animal before it got too far east.

“We had the necessary support in terms of helicopters and capture expertise and we had slightly improved visibility, making the operation safer, and more effective.”

Hunt said livestock grazing lease holders in the area where the bison roamed were, “incredibly patient with our efforts and we want to recognize them for their cooperation and support.”

In regard to putting down the bull which headed north, “Our options for capturing this bull were compromised by various factors, including the speed at which the bison was moving eastward, the availability of resources such as staff and helicopters. Wildfires burning in the immediate area and throughout Western Canada left little availability for helicopters and smoke reduced visibility and made telemetry more difficult,” said Hunt.

“In addition, the main bison herd was edging northward toward the Red Deer River, following a similar path as the bulls which left the core reintroduction area. Many resources were needed to monitor and haze the main herd.

“The decision to put down this one bull was a very difficult one and was not taken without considering various options, but our efforts had to focus on monitoring and ensuring the well being of the majority of the herd.

The remaining herd of 33 animals, including three bulls, is being watched and, if necessary, hazed back into the reintroduction zone to keep them on national park land, according to Parks Canada. Early in the reintroduction project, Parks had pledged to do its part to ensure the bison remained in the park, rather than roaming on provincial land to avoid contact with livestock.

“Currently, most of the herd, including three adult males, and all the cows and calves, remain within the core reintroduction area,” said Hunt. “One adult bull is using habitat right on the boundary of the reintroduction zone (about five kilometres from the main herd), so moves in and out of the area every few days, but not outside the park boundary.

“He was also joined by another bull that has rejoined the herd of his own volition.

“We are pleased that the remaining bison have settled back within the heart of the reintroduction zone in Banff’s backcountry,” said Hunt. “And we will continue to monitor their behaviour and their movements.

“We ask for your patience and support as we work through this challenging project.”

Parks’ main focus now is on keeping the main herd together in the reintroduction area, including erecting extra fencing and staff on foot and horseback. Recently, helicopters were used to haze the animals back to the core area if they stray. The helicopters are used to “gently” herd them using low stress stockmanship techniques. Parks staff is trying not to be too intrusive in herding the bison, but will if necessary.

On herding with helicopters, Karsten Heuer, project manager, said, “we put pressure on the main cow herd once and they responded really well. It’s often easier to move a herd of animals than it is to move one intent bull.

“I don’t want to give the impression that we’re out there all the time, managing this main herd. We’ve had to exert pressure one time and other than that, for three weeks they’ve been no farther than six kilometres from the release site of their own volition and moving around.

“We’re not buzzing the animals. It’s very slow, very controlled and the animals are not in an agitated state.

“Even with the two bulls that exited the zone, they were responsive to those actions when we were on the ground with them, but then they often would continue on their trajectory during the night when we couldn’t work with them. With those two bulls, I think there was something else that was just sort of driving them to continue to explore. That proved more challenging.”

Four bulls remain from the original herd moved from Elk Island, along with three young bulls born last year in Banff. “So we still have a fairly good diversity of genetics in the herd,” said Hunt.

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