BANFF – Tens of millions of bison once roamed across much of North America before they were almost slaughtered to extinction in the late 1800s.
In Banff National Park, where wild plains bison had been missing for about 160 years, 12 pregnant cows and four bulls was reintroduced into Banff’s remote backcountry as part of a $6.4 million pilot project in 2017.
The population of the iconic animals has since swelled to approximately 80, with only two newborn calves falling victim to wolves. Two bulls were relocated and two other determined males were killed for wandering onto neighbouring provincial lands.
Parks Canada, which is seeking public input on the five-year pilot, has deemed that keeping North America’s largest land mammal on Banff’s landscape is feasible into the future in a “controlled and measured form.”
The federal agency did not grant an interview request before deadline, but a draft report on the project indicated the bison herd remained healthy and demonstrated a solid growth rate with minimal deaths.
“They appear to have adapted quickly to the mountain habitat, and they remained, for the most part, within the park,” states the 24-page report now out for public review until Dec. 14.
“Negative impacts to other species were not observed, and there were no threats to human safety or property damage reported.”
The bison reintroduction project kicked off in early 2017 when 16 healthy, disease-free bison from Elk Island National Park were brought to a fenced pasture within the reintroduction zone along Banff National Park’s eastern slopes.
The bison spent the first two calving seasons in the enclosed soft-release pasture, allowing them to bond to their new home before being released into the greater 1,200-square kilometre reintroduction zone in summer of 2018.
Mountain ridges and short stretches of wildlife-friendly fencing discouraged bison from leaving the zone while still allowing other wildlife to pass freely. The bison, considered an umbrella species for many plants and animals sharing the same habitat, have primarily stayed within the Panther and Dormer valleys.
The bison population growth has averaged 33 per cent a year, while the natural mortality rate was less than one per cent. The removal of the four dispersing males onto provincial lands accounted for another one per cent.
The growth rate is expected to moderate in the coming years, but even the average growth rate of about 20 per cent for wild herds in North America would result in more than 200 animals within the next eight years.
“The robust growth rate suggests the population could reach a point in the next 10 years where extinction from random catastrophic events such as disease outbreaks or extreme weather events, or genetic drift is improbable,” states the draft report.
“This is a significant accomplishment given plains bison occur in only five other isolated wild subpopulations, currently occupy less than 0.5 per cent of their original range in North America, and are rarely subject to natural selection.”
The population and range of every modern free-roaming plains bison herd in North America is, however, somewhat limited by surrounding development, and is ultimately managed by people either through Indigenous and non-Indigenous hunting, or frequent roundups, relocations, auctions and removals.
Parks Canada has been investigating what a managed Indigenous hunt could look like in Banff National Park, but no details are available at this time.
“Although opportunities to expand bison range exist within and outside the park, they will ultimately be limited by outlying agriculture, other human developments, and active management,” states the draft summary report.
Earlier this year, Stoney Nakoda Nation made 11 recommendations in a cultural assessment report on Banff’s bison reintroduction. They include allowing bison to roam freely throughout the park and a potential bison harvest once the population grows or reaches the capacity of the reintroduction zone.
Bison were not only vital to the daily lives of the Stoney Nakoda people and other Indigenous groups across the Great Plains, but also essential to cultural identity and spirituality. Bison were in the clothes they wore, tools they used, food they ate, stories and songs they shared, and in their prayers.
The Stoney report stated Parks Canada should work with Stoney Elders and ceremony to determine the appropriate number of bison for the reintroduction area, and once a population target is defined and achieved, Parks Canada should work with the Stoney to discuss herd control mechanisms.
“There may be an opportunity to support Indigenous harvesting if there is a need to reduce herd numbers or if a particular individual needs to be destroyed for public safety or other management reasons,” states the Indigenous report.
“How these individuals are managed should be informed by the observed herd social structure and advice of the elders. Ceremony should be conducted before any bison is removed from the herd for any reason.”
Over the course of five years, the health of the bison herd was closely monitored with “reassuring results.”
The body condition of all of the original animals averaged good to very good, fecal parasite counts were low, and calving rates were very high with an average 33 per cent herd growth rate per year.
“Despite intensive monitoring and frequent field and remote camera observations, no sick animals were detected,” states the report, noting GPS collars were maintained on at least 10 per cent of the herd.
“Only two natural bison mortalities were recorded in the five-year pilot due to wolf predation of newborns in spring 2020 and 2021.”
Efforts to track how wolves reacted to the initial reintroduction of bison were hampered by a high number of wolf deaths from trapping on neighbouring provincial lands outside the national park.
However, two wolves were fitted with GPS-collars and survived for a few months before being trapped outside the park in the first winter of 2018-19 after bison were released. The wolves approached the bison repeatedly, but their advances did not elicit any fear or cause the GPS-collared bison to flee.
Parks Canada’s remote cameras also show a similar lack of response from the bison to the presence of wolves.
“In a couple of instances, curious juvenile bison males actually chased wolves,” states the report.
While there were a few visitors who did see the bison during their wilderness experience, and those were mostly guides with clients, the reports states the existence of bison did not appear to increase visitation to this part of the backcountry.
Remote trail cameras indicate annual human use, including Parks Canada’s own staff, remained low, with fewer than 60 human events per year recorded in the heart of the reintroduction zone during the pilot period.
“This is well below the target threshold of 100 events per month to maintain grizzly bear habitat security," states the report, referring to a threshold prescribed in Banff National Park’s management plan.
According to the report, bison generally fled up to five kilometres whenever they encountered the occasional hiking group. They never fled from nor approached horseback riders within the park.
“Outside the park, a lone bull did venture into horse camps, which caused concerns among campers,” states the report. “It was euthanized as it continued to wander east, as per the bison excursion response plan.”
In 2018, the provincial government established a 240-square-kilometre special bison zone in the Upper Red Deer River area to protect wayward bison until Parks Canada team members could capture or haze them back into the national park.
In addition, the province allowed Parks Canada to build four secondary bison containment fences this year in key pinch points to the east of the special bison zone, where a large mountain ridge already acts as an extensive barrier.
“These fences will deflect bison from travelling through four gaps in this ridge system and onto adjacent grazing allotments, thus providing a secondary line of containment,” states the report.
Although the times bison did venture beyond the reintroduction zone or the park boundary were rare, lone bulls did disperse east of the reintroduction zone and the park on four different occasions.
Three of these ventured onto livestock grazing allotments in the summers of 2018 and 2019 but did not mingle with cattle or damage any fences.
“Allotment holders were contacted immediately and (Parks Canada) successfully recaptured or removed the bison within days," states the report.
By almost all measures, Parks Canada says strategies to encourage bison to anchor to the established 1,200-square-kilometre reintroduction zone, such as holding them in a fenced pasture for the first 18 months, worked.
“The rate of bison exploration diminished with time since release,” states the report.
“The reintroduced Banff bison have developed a home range with predictable travel paths between preferred areas in the reintroduction zone, suggesting a learned fidelity for the area.”
The report states, however, that this fidelity to the area and bison movements have been heavily influenced by management interventions, most notably two drift fences in the Panther and Red Deer valleys.
These two fences have prevented northeasterly bison movements outside of the reintroduction zone on 50 occasions since the animals were released, and the frequency of these visits has not diminished with time.
Hazing the animals back into the reintroduction zone using low-stress herding techniques has also been necessary, albeit on fewer occasions. These forays have also been in a northward direction towards the Clearwater Valley from Divide Creek.
“Because of the remoteness of the region, crews have required helicopters to get people on the ground to herd the animals in a timely manner,” states the report.
The Bow Valley Naturalists (BVN), a local conservation organization advocating for the protection of local ecosystems for 55 years, has always had mixed feelings about the bison reintroduction project in Banff National Park.
While recognizing the many positive ecological and symbolic benefits of having bison back on the landscape, the root of the issue for many BVN members is this is still functionally a bison herd contained in a fenced paddock.
“In a sense, this is just a bigger, more remote version of bison paddocks that already exist in several national parks,” said Reg Bunyan, past-president and current member of BVN’s board of directors.
Bunyan, who is a retired resource conservation officer for Banff National Park, said a captive herd in a remote backcountry area raises a host of potential management concerns.
“These include the potential for bison fencing barriers to impede the free movement of other ungulates, concerns with herd growth and the challenges of culling excess animals in a remote area without creating further ecological or wilderness impacts, and the diversion of scarce resources to manage bison fencing and herding,” he said.
“While a free roaming herd would likely mitigate all of these issues, public safety and agricultural conflict concerns, rightly or wrongly, will likely dictate that this will never be a natural free roaming herd.”
Like many, BVN would like to see the project succeed but questions what success will ultimately look like.
“Parks Canada has yet to describe a comprehensive blueprint for the future of the Banff bison and to clearly describe what constitutes long-term measures of success,” said Bunyan.
Sarah Elmeligi, a Canmore-based ecologist and the national parks program coordinator for the southern Alberta chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), said what truly stands out in the report is the lack of conflict.
“There were a lot of concerns that people had about reintroducing bison to the park around disease transmission to cattle, or conflict with recreationists or conflict with landowners, and none of those concerns have come to fruition,” she said.
“Bison are on the landscape, they’re reproducing and they’re having annual movement patterns, so I want to congratulate Parts Canada on a job well done, and I think this really shows that when we have management intention and we back it up with capacity and funding, we can have great success.”
Elmeligi said one of CPAWS’ key recommendations will be for Parks Canada and Alberta Environment and Protected Areas to work together to make sure there’s cultural, ecological and social space as the bison herd continues to grow and wanders onto provincial lands.
“We really want to see concrete examples of how the federal and provincial governments are going to be working together to ensure the success of this bison population over the long run on both national and provincial lands,” she said.
For CPAWS, bison reintroduction is about more than the ecological value of having a species back on the landscape.
“There are massive spiritual and cultural implications associated with this reintroduction for all Treaty 7 First Nations and that really needs to be celebrated so much more,” she said.
“These bison can truly move Truth and Reconciliation forward in a very tangible way and so I’d like to see a little bit more of that in this report.”
Parks Canada is seeking feedback from Indigenous groups, stakeholders, and the public over a 30-day period, ending Dec. 14. Canadians are encouraged to review the draft report and share feedback via email to [email protected].
Kira Tryon, public relations and communications officer for Banff National Park, said based on results of the pilot, the agency is seeking perspectives from Canadians on what is important for Parks Canada to consider in the future of bison management in the park.
“This input will help Parks Canada finalize the draft report and will be one of the considerations used to inform the future of bison on the landscape,” she said in an email.