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How A Small Alberta National Park Is Helping Save The World's Bison

Michael Hingston

Travel Alberta

- 13 minute read

It’s a brisk, cloudy morning in February in a remote valley on the eastern edge of Banff National Park. Five modified shipping containers sit on the ground, vibrating. Inside are groups of plains bison—three or four to a container, not quite shoulder to shoulder, 16 animals in all. The bison each have a numbered tag attached to one ear, a special collar around their necks, and lengths of rubber hose duct-taped to their horns to protect one another from accidental gougings.

Outside, a team of Parks Canada staff in forest-green jackets and toques wait for the signal. Soon it arrives and the containers open. “That was the moment everyone was waiting for,” said Karsten Heuer, the park’s employee biologist overseeing the project. All at once, a rumbling sound fills the air as thousands of pounds of muscle and fur come charging out into the pasture. And just like that, it’s done: After a painful absence that lasted more than a century, wild bison have returned to Canada’s first national park.

It’s a historic and emotional day for everyone involved. But the story of these bison really begins the previous afternoon, some 400 kilometres away, in Elk Island National Park. That’s where these animals were born and raised, inside the fully fenced, 194 square-kilometre park. That’s also where the bison—10 pregnant females and six bulls, all two years old—were first loaded into shipping containers, strapped to a series of flat-bed pickup trucks, and then driven five hours southwest to the edge of the Ya-Ha-Tinda Ranch. From there, the containers sat overnight, where a handler played Mozart over a speaker system to keep the bison calm. The next morning, a helicopter lifted each container off the ground and carried them, one by one, for a 15-minute trip into the Panther River Valley, where the Parks Canada team eagerly awaited them on the ground.

Wild Bison Return

After years of planning, the thundering release of wild bison into Banff National Park may prove to be a landmark moment.

Then again, one could argue that the story of the bison actually begins even earlier—20 years ago, to be specific, when the Town of Banff finally shuttered its fenced-in bison paddock after 100 years of continuous operation. In contrast with wild bison, these animals were strictly a display herd. They didn’t interact with their ecosystem, were sheltered from predators, and had to be given supplemental hay to eat. But they were bison all the same. It was only once staff discovered that the paddock was actually obstructing the migration of other wildlife in the park that they decided to shut it down for good.

The story of these bison, though, truly begins in the late 19th-century, when over-hunting by Europeans drove the species, which had previously blanketed the continent by the tens of millions, to the brink of extinction. Plains bison went from a keystone species, not to mention a creature of immense practical and spiritual significance to many indigenous people, to a fading memory, all within a generation. 

Yet just when things were at their bleakest, a new hope emerged. At the dawn of the 20th century, it was Elk Island National Park, just east of Edmonton, and one with no pre-existing interest in bison, that became the unlikely saviour of the species—protecting it from annihilation, and helping establish new herds across Canada, and beyond.

Elk Island National Park near Edmonton received a small shipment of nearly-extinct bison from the Flathead Indian Reservation at the turn of the 20th century. Since then, the park’s re-population breeding program has lead to the re-establishment of the mammals all around the world.

Noel Hendrickson

Species Saved At Elk Island National Park

Today, Elk Island National Park is not just a hidden gem within Alberta, but a growing international tourist destination that’s home to hundreds of both subspecies of bison (plains and wood), plenty of elk, and more than 250 species of birds. Visitors can skate on scenic Astotin Lake in the winter, camp at over 60 sites around the park, including new hybrid tent/cabins called oTENTiks, in the summer, and see some of the most majestic creatures the continent has to offer year-round. But the park’s initial success can be boiled down to one word: fences.

As the wild bison population collapsed to near-extinction levels at the turn of the 20th century, the Canadian government decided to purchase a few of the surviving animals that were then owned by private farmers in the United States, and ship them north. There was a catch on the northern side of the border, however. Originally, the bison were set to go to Buffalo National Park, near the town of Wainwright, in east-central Alberta. (A quick word on terminology: While all North American “buffalo” are really bison, the two terms are used interchangeably.) Except that its fences weren’t ready yet. Elk Island National Park, meanwhile, was already fully fenced—plus, it was near the town of Lamont, which had a train station. So the bison were sent there first, to what at the time was primarily an elk preserve (hence the name), as a stopgap. And by the time the Buffalo National Park finally got its fences together, it was decided that 50 of the bison would remain behind, at Elk Island National Park, for good.

Buffalo National Park would close just a few decades later, its land transferred to the federal Department of National Defence in the 1940s. Twenty-five years later, to cement its new position as bison central, Elk Island National Park acquired another herd: these ones the larger, rarer wood bison subspecies, which came from Wood Buffalo National Park, on the province’s northern border. To keep their herds separate, Elk Island National Park staff decided to use Highway 16, which already ran through the middle of the park, as a divider. That division is still in effect today, with plains bison roaming the north side, and the wood bison patrolling the south. Like most Edmontonians, I’ve driven past Elk Island National Park a bunch of times. But I don’t think I’ll ever get over the feeling of shock and delight I feel every time a
bunch of hulking, demure faces emerge from the brush as I hang a left past the park’s entrance sign. It’s like they’ve come out to personally welcome me into their home, and today is no exception.

Bison Born In Banff

A group of pregnant female bison were chosen for relocation from Elk Island. Shortly after being moved to Banff, they gave birth, establishing a new generation of animals in the park.

THE BISON REALLY IS THE HEART AND SOUL OF WHO WE ARE

KURT BUFFALO, CHIEF OF THE SAMSON CREE NATION

“They’re extremely intelligent animals,” says Heuer, looking admiringly into the distance. “They’re very sensitive and responsive, which is really heartening for me. They can weigh up to 2,000 pounds, but when they start trotting, they look as light as a gazelle. There’s a gracefulness to them, and yet a tremendous sense of power.” Heuer knows from wildlife, too. He’s a trained biologist and seasoned outdoorsman who, in 2007, paddled across much of the country with his wife and their two-year-old son to try to track down the famed Canadian nature writer Farley Mowat for a documentary for the National Film Board.

Still, Heuer is in awe of bison. And he’s far from alone in feeling that way. It’s now a few days before the chosen 16 will be shipped into Banff National Park, and I’ve joined a group of Parks Canada staff, First Nations chiefs and elders, and other well-wishers at Elk Island National Park to witness blessing ceremonies from nations representing Treaty 6 and Treaty 7 territory (covering central Alberta and Saskatchewan and southern Alberta, respectively). These nations have more than one reason to celebrate. On top of the return of wild bison to Banff, they’re also signatories to a new treaty pledging a joint effort to preserve and expand the bison’s presence across the Northern Great Plains—the first such document to be signed by multiple First Nations in more than a hundred years, says Kurt Buffalo, chief of the Samson Cree Nation. And it’s only fitting that the cause of this reunion is the animal that has linked their ancestors together for centuries.

“The bison really is the heart and soul of who we are,” Buffalo says. “Our ceremonies that we do are based on the gifts that we get from the bison—historically.” One of his fellow chiefs likes to say bison were the “first Wal-Mart,” supplying indigenous people with everything from  food to clothing to shelter to tools. Which makes their absence from the plains today all the more painful. “Imagine in your own home you hear the footsteps of your children, day in and day out,” Buffalo says. “You expect them there. And then all of a sudden, they’re gone. And it gets quiet. It’s the same thing with Mother Earth. Mother Earth is waiting for that herd of buffalo to come back.”

Getting that herd back has been a process years in the making. Staff at Banff National Park first started talking about reintroducing wild bison to the landscape in 1997, when the show paddock was closed for good. By 2010, the idea had made its way into the park’s 10-year management plan. That kicked off an extensive round of research, analysis, and modelling to determine what effects the bison would have—positive and negative—on the landscape.

Heuer is quick to point out that the process was done as carefully and thoroughly as possible. But he’s also clearly excited by the scope of the project and the larger, almost existential questions it presents. “How much are we, as people in the modern world, willing to accommodate an animal that demands space?” Heuer asks, as the chosen 16 bison snort and forage peacefully in the distance behind him. “How much are we willing to do for wildness? That’s an edge that I’ve explored my whole life, in various capacities, and I think that’s what really drew me into working on this project.”

In all, more than 2,500 bison from Elk Island National Park have been sent off for conservation purposes, including to a variety of Canadian parks, from southern Saskatchewan up to the Yukon, to Native American reservations in Montana, and even across the Pacific Ocean to Russia. Park interpreter Lauren Markewicz says there are currently 11 conservation herds of wood bison in North America; of those, eight were founded with animals from Elk Island National Park.

“There’s a gracefulness to them, and yet a tremendous sense of power,” says biologist Karsten Heuer about the bison. Heuer, a biologist who lead the Banff re-introduction program, is also a seasoned outdoorsman who once made a documentary about paddling across Canada to meet famed author Farley Mowat with his wife and two-year-old son.

Curtis Comeau

It has other advantages besides longevity. Because the park is fully fenced, and because of its robust disease protocol, Elk Island National Park’s bison are considered free of major reportable diseases by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. “Having that certification makes it possible for us, with very low risk, to translocate bison to other areas,” says Pinette Robinson, lead of Elk Island National Park’s bison management program. In recent years the park has also reinvented its techniques for handling bison based on a system developed by the renowned livestock expert Temple Grandin that aims to minimize the animals’ stress levels. Elk Island National Park’s new corrals have sleek, curved walls, as well as a series of catwalks that allow humans to pass by, overhead and unseen.

Of course, nothing can prepare a bison for the sensation of being flown, via shipping container, over a chunk of the sprawling Canadian Rocky Mountains. But Robinson, Heuer, and everyone at Elk Island National Park are doing all they can to make the days leading up to their flight as relaxing as possible.

Restoring A Legacy

Elk Island National Park’s unique breeding program has created “seed herds” of bison for re-population in places as far away as Russia.

The Work Has Just Begun In Banff

Thanks to their friends at Elk Island National Park, Banff National Park may once again have the beginnings of a wild bison herd. But for Heuer, the work is far from over. For the next 16 months, he’ll oversee the animals as they are kept within a 45-acre “soft release” pasture, during which period the females will give birth twice. This process will make the mothers and calves alike bond to their surroundings. 

Then, in June 2018, the bison will be given access to a larger, though still relatively isolated area approximately the size of one-fifth of the park. It’s a gradual process, but one that’s critical if we ever want to see wild bison populations recover in a serious way. And to the people on the ground, releasing these first 16 animals back into their ancestral home feels anything but minor. “It’s so inspiring to me,” Heuer says. “Does this project aim to restore the size of the bison population? No. But I think we’re planting seeds to allow animals like this to roam across the landscape where they’ve been missing. That’s tremendously inspiring, and I think for visitors as well. I see people blown away by them.” Restoring the bison will affect the park’s ecosystem in many ways, as the numerous plant and animal species they interact with have to re-learn how to co-exist with one another. But even that physical impact pales in comparison to the psychological one it has for many of Canada’s indigenous people.

“To go from just a handful—almost extinct—to where we’re at today, shows a lot about the animal itself, and how determined it was not go to extinct,” says Buffalo, smiling widely. “It’s a hardy animal.” The bison, he adds, may well have lessons that us humans can learn from, too. “Because if we don’t start looking after Mother Earth, then we’re going to be on the extinct list pretty quick.” 

Thankfully, humans don’t have to charter a helicopter to the Banff wilderness to admire bison in person. Just hop in the car and take the highway east out of Edmonton, towards Elk Island National Park. Then keep an eye out for the welcoming party. You’ll know it when you see it.

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