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Bison roaming wild in Banff

BANFF – Wild plains bison are again roaming free on the landscape in the province of Alberta. A herd of about 30 bison in the Panther Valley of Banff National Park were officially released on July 29 by Parks Canada staff.
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Plains bison in Banff National Park cross the Panther River.

BANFF – Wild plains bison are again roaming free on the landscape in the province of Alberta.

A herd of about 30 bison in the Panther Valley of Banff National Park were officially released on July 29 by Parks Canada staff.

It was a culmination of more than a decade of dedication and hard work on the part of staff at the federal agency and efforts by the public to see the large land mammal return to the ecosystem.

The reintroduction represents a milestone ecologically, historically and culturally for all involved and was celebrated at an event last Thursday (Aug. 2) in Banff.

Acting superintendent Sheila Luey said that if it takes a village to raise a child, it takes passion, persistence and patience from the Canadian public, industry and advocacy groups and Indigenous partners to reintroduce an extirpated species to the wilds of the Canadian Rockies.

“Today is the culmination of work that began quietly, in some cases years ago, in other cases decades ago, with the forward thinking of a few,” Luey said. “Who would have known we could actually get here, because it is a big task to reintroduce bison in Canada’s first national park.”

Plains bison numbered between 25 million and 70 million in population before European settlers arrived in North America and were all but eliminated by the mid-1800s.

In 2010, Parks Canada’s management plan for Banff National Park identified restoring a herd of wild plains bison as an objective and soon after, the federal government announced a public consultation into the idea.

By 2015, a budget of $6.4 million was announced to reintroduce bison and work began to engage with Indigenous stakeholders on the proposal from Treaty 7 First Nations such as the Stoney Nakoda.

Luey said the cultural importance of the reintroduction process has been critical to the entire project, along with restoring ecological processes that had been absent from the landscape for over 100 years.

“When Parks Canada started this project, we had three goals for it,” she said. “The first was biodiversity and bringing back to the landscape the normal ecological processes. The second goal was to restore a cultural icon to the landscape and hopefully restore some cultural connections along with it. The third goal we had for the project is to provide a richer opportunity for people to learn, engage and understand the national park.

“Today is really where the rubber hits the road and this is where all of those steps were leading. After 140 years, we finally have bison back where they belong and roaming the landscape freely as they should.”

For Parks resource conservation manager Bill Hunt, the opportunity for Indigenous communities and ceremonies to mark the milestones of the process have been important to the overall project from the very start. Several spiritual and cultural ceremonies regarding bison have been held, including the signing of the Buffalo Treaty in Banff in 2015.

“The immediate interest, support and enthusiasm from Indigenous groups we met with was really incredible and without exception,” said Hunt. “We heard that ceremony is a really important part of getting the land ready to receive the bison and then they came out again to get the area ready for bison to roam free.”

Hunt’s role included overseeing the methods Parks Canada would use to measure the ecological impact of plains bison on the landscape and other species.

A host of measures have been established to track the project’s ecological effect – some incorporated into already established Parks monitoring programs and others created just for the bison.

That includes monitoring by the aquatics team within the field unit for occupancy levels and distribution of fish; annual birdsong monitoring; measuring effects on beetle and bug populations in the region; amphibian and vegetation monitoring and keeping a close eye on local wolf packs and grizzly bears.

He said staff are already seeing cowbirds on the backs of the bison – a species common on the prairies that until now had not been seen in the heart of Banff National Park.

“Our challenge is in five years we want to have a snapshot of what effect bison have on the landscape and it is going to tie into occupancy monitoring for what an ideal herd size is,” Hunt said. “We know at some point, just like elk, we are going to manage the herd size.”

When it comes to potential threats to the bison herd, reintroduction project manager Karsten Heuer made it clear – these are wild animals that are subject to natural processes and Parks staff are not going to interfere.

Even the potential threat of wildfire would not result in management action, he said, and a lightning strike this year already ignited a small blaze in the Panther Valley.

Heuer has been spending time in the remote location on the eastern edge of the national park preparing for the final release, which occurred over the last weekend in July. One key aspect of the process has been allowing the herd to have two sets of calves in the soft-release pasture as a way to bond with the area.

“We were told by other reintroduction experts and ranchers this is probably the single most important thing you could do to anchor and bond them to this landscape,” Heuer said. “We wanted to make sure all these big steps we were asking of the bison like making the transition from the grasslands of Elk Island National Park to the mountain valleys of Banff National Park – that each of those steps were as small and manageable as possible.”

He said a lot of effort went into trying to predict when and where the bison would head first once their 18-hectare pasture was opened up.

That includes prescribed fire to refresh grasses, installing fencing in key locations, collaring of wolf packs nearby and even putting radio collars or transmitter eat tags on the bison to track their location.

Heuer said it was important to allow the animals to leave on their own terms and find their way. Staff expected to see the herd in the valley bottom the next day, but were surprised to see them higher up on the slopes of the surrounding mountains instead.

The ability to potentially pressure them is also a management tool Parks staff is prepared to use to keep the bison within Banff National Park. Heuer said the idea is to teach and root the bison in the Panther Valley, which is prime habitat for plains bison.

“This is all about moving slowly and waiting for the opportunity to make your idea, where you like them to go, their idea,” he said. “We have had the opportunity over the last couple of days to try this out with the animals out there and I am really pleased it is working.”

The reintroduction zone is 1,200 square kilometres in size and over the past two years Parks staff spent time training horses to work with bison and developing semi-permeable fencing structures in strategic locations to prevent herd animals from leaving the national park and roaming onto provincial lands.

One of the biggest bureaucratic hurdles to the reintroduction plan has been the fact that plains bison specifically are not identified in the province of Alberta as wildlife due to the fact they are extirpated.

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