After 140 Years, Bison Again Roaming in Banff

Written by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Story at-a-glance -

  • North America once was home to thousands of bison, but human intervention eliminated them almost entirely from the landscape until a new Parks Canada initiative reintroduced them in Banff National Park
  • Parks Canada, once known as Rocky Mountains Park, began its efforts in bison conservation in 1897 by first putting protection measures in place for the area’s few remaining bison
  • Banff National Park reintroduced 16 plains bison, transported via helicopter and truck to Panther River Valley, about 25 miles north of the town of Banff, partially fencing them until their release to the wild in July 2018
  • Researchers are closely monitoring the effects the bison have on streams and fish, how wolves interact with their prey, their impact on songbird communities and even the bugs that fatten themselves on bison dung
  • The five-year plan of the bison reintroduction project will culminate in a reassessment of the endeavor to determine if it was indeed “the single most important thing we could do to anchor and bond them to this landscape”

At one time, the North American continent was home to 30 million bison. Now, for the first time in 140 years, wild bison again roam the rugged slopes of the Canadian Rocky Mountains where, in 1885, Canada’s first national park, now more than 1.6 million acres in Alberta and known as Banff, was established.

Situated roughly four hours north of the U.S. border state of Idaho (as the crow flies), Banff is the site of more than a thousand glaciers, lakes, a natural hot spring and ancient peaks dating back around 120 million years.

The area encompassing the park was home to bison for 10,000 years, but over the last century and a half, overhunting by Europeans settlers for sport and elimination as well as other human interference nearly rendered the continent’s largest mammal a bygone statistic. National Geographic observes:

“By the late 1880s, the iconic species that once dominated the landscape had been reduced to just 1,000 animals. In the early 1900s, a group of conservationists led by zoologist and taxidermist William T. Hornaday, with support from Theodore Roosevelt and the Boone and Crockett Club, launched a movement to save the bison from extinction.

These conservationists helped to ensure the few remaining bison were transferred to protected land in Yellowstone National Park and Canada’s Great Slave Lake, while others were kept on private land and in zoos.”1

The problem with many small areas where bison are beginning to flourish once again is that for animals that migrate as much as 600 miles, confining them to most parks is like confining them to the area of a postage stamp, says Cristina Eisenberg, Ph.D., chief scientist at Earthwatch (a nonprofit organization connecting citizens with scientists for conservation research worldwide), who partnered with the Blackfoot First Nation and led studies that would help prepare for a similar bison reintroduction to other parks and tribal lands in the Canadian Rockies.

The Great Re-Migration: Return of the Banff Bison

In 2017, a long-planned endeavor known as the Banff National Park bison reintroduction project was realized: Sixteen plains bison were transported via helicopter and trucks containing crates to a pasture area in Panther River Valley, about 25 miles north of Banff (the town). The area was partially fenced to keep the bison from wandering out of the park, The Canadian Press2 reports. According to CBC/Radio-Canada:

“While many remember what Parks Canada calls a ‘display herd’ of bison housed in a paddock near the Banff townsite until 1997, this herd represents a return to wild animals ... Six young bulls and 10 females, some pregnant, were transported from Elk Island National Park … It was called the soft-release pasture.”3

Bill Hunt, resource conservation manager with Parks Canada, makes it clear that the bison aren’t a herd captured for the purpose of display; they’re wild, and roam wild, he told the Calgary Herald.4 “Just the role that bison play in the ecosystem makes this even more significant than perhaps many other species that we work on in the park.” He notes that following two calving seasons, 31 bison currently make up the total herd.

The bison are wearing collars with GPS tracking, but meanwhile, they’re busy changing the landscape and increasing the park’s biodiversity by altering the food web, which Dictionary.com describes as a series of organisms related by predator-prey and consumer-resource interactions, or the entirety of interrelated food chains in an ecological community.5

Potential biological diversity is the reason why bison are called a keystone species, Hunt explains: They help improve grazing for animals like elk by fertilizing the grassy landscape, they “open” the forest for small mammals and birds, and when they shed their shaggy coats in the spring, it provides nesting material for alpine birds. In addition, they’re an important food source for scavengers such as grizzly bears and wolverines.

The Bison Reintroduction Project: The Five-Year Plan

Now known as Parks Canada, Rocky Mountains Park began its efforts in bison conservation in 1897 by first putting protection measures in place for the area’s few remaining bison, although they were a “display” herd. Then in the early 1900s, the Canadian government purchased 700 bison from a rancher in Montana out of the last wild herds. The bison were then shipped to Elk Island and Buffalo national parks.

According to the Calgary Herald, in 1997 the display herd in Banff National Park was removed and their enclosure was taken down to facilitate wildlife movement around the town of Banff. Then in 2010, Banff National Park management announced the plan to reintroduce a group of bison of breeding age that had been gone for generations. In 2017, the $6.4-million project allotted by the Canadian government and monitored by Parks Canada reintroduced 16 bison.

A five-year overall plan was devised, providing for researchers to closely monitor the effects the bison would have on fish in the streams, how wolves interact with their prey, their impact on songbird communities and even the bugs that fatten themselves on bison dung. Karsten Heuer, the reintroduction project manager, notes:

“The design of the project revolved around this soft-release phase of the five-year pilot … We decided to make a significant investment in supporting [the bison] for a year and a half and actually have them calve twice. We were told by other reintroduction experts and bison ranchers that this was probably the single most important thing we could do to anchor and bond them to this landscape.”6

Officials from Parks Canada also showed they were committed to recognizing the historical, spiritual and cultural significance of bison to indigenous people, traditionally known as buffalo. Preparations for the release included First Nation elders being flown by helicopter to the backcountry site where the animals were to be released to participate in a blessing ceremony, the third such event marking different stages of the program.7

In the spring of 2017, 10 new calves appeared alongside the bison, but by July, three more new calves dubbed “made in Banff bison” seemed to confirm the effort’s success. Park officials are hoping for at least six more. Then came the culmination; the Calgary Harold’s timeline notes that in late July 2018, the enclosed pasture confining the wild bison was opened, successfully releasing them.

In 2022, which will mark the end of the five-year program, the project will be reassessed to determine if it was in fact a success. Hunt concedes that with the return to Banff National Park, not just the landscape but the way the entire system works needs to be redefined, because it’s being reshaped to create a “vibrant mosaic of habitat” by free-roaming bison once again.

Another Bison Reintroduction Initiative

National Geographic observes that the successful release of bison into the wilds of Banff National Park was part of a larger effort to reestablish the majestic animals to regions they’d once populated in literal droves all across the U.S. and Canada. As an extension of the initiative, a separate herd of more than 80 young bison, managed by the Blackfeet Tribe in Montana, is expected to be released into the Badger-Two Medicine area, the Waterton and Kainai lands. The Blackfoot call it the Iinnii, or Bison Initiative.

Leroy Little Bear, a Blackfoot elder, is enveloped in the support effort to have the bison returned, partly because the tribe’s culture is so closely tied to that of the buffalo, including the Buffalo Women’s Society and the Buffalo Horn Society, he explains. But when they were almost completely wiped off the face of the Earth, “We became a whole lot less Blackfoot,” he says. “The beliefs and the stories were still there, but the physical aspect was lost.”8

With the buffalo restoration, however, Little Bear is pleased to say the stories are being reaffirmed. But so is the progress of the bison-supported ecosystem that researchers were monitoring for several years before the animals were even returned. As Canadian Geographic so colorfully relates:

“Their presence means old relationships forged over thousands of years are picking up where they left off. Earlier in the spring, ravens and magpies pulled shedding winter hair from the bisons’ shoulders to line their nests. Cowbirds, too, have found the bison and are already riding on their backs, feasting on the insects kicked up by their hooves.

Over millennia, cowbirds evolved a clever strategy to keep pace with migrating bison — they lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, which then raise the cowbird chicks as their own. Even ground squirrels are benefitting, the cropped grasses, now too short to allow coyotes to sneak up. In return, the rodents dig holes everywhere, providing the loose, dusty earth bison love to roll in.”9

As project manager, Heuer and countless individuals held their breath until the first bison calves were born and as each milestone was crossed after everything had been set into motion. But he’s confident that the bison will — and probably already have — settled comfortably into their new home on the range.