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Bison Back in Banff After 130 Years

Parks Canada released 16 of the wooly ungulates in the national park in a pilot project to re-establish the species

Bison returning to Banff (Parks Canada)
smithsonian.com

Over the last week, 10 pregnant bison and six young bulls with rubber tubes taped over their horns, were loaded into shipping containers at Elk Island National Park outside Edmonton, Alberta, and trucked four hours to Banff National Park in the Canadian Rockies. No, this isn't a scene from the next Mad Max movie, it was the first step in reintroducing bison to Banff for the first time in more than 130 years.

According to Lisa Monforton at CBC News, once the bison reached a holding ranch outside the park, their shipping containers were then airlifted by a helicopter to an enclosure in Panther Valley within the park. There, for the next 16 months the radio-collared ungulates will acclimate to the area while Parks personnel monitor them. If all goes well, the bison will be freed to range throughout a 460-square-mile section in the eastern part of the park in summer 2018.

The hope is that the grazing bison will fill an ecological niche that has been lacking in the area since the species was almost obliterated by hunters in the 1880s. “This would be one of only four plains bison herds in North America that would be fully interacting with their predators and shaping the ecosystem as they did over a hundred years ago,” Kasper Heuer, manager of the reintroduction project tells Nia Williams at Reuters.

According to a press release, Banff National Park collected some of the few remaining wild bison in North America and displayed them in a corral beginning in 1897. That herd was removed in 1997. The Canadian government also collected a herd of wild bison in 1907. The roughly 700 animals, which the government shipped to Elk Island, have served as a source herd for several other elk restorations.

Colleen Underwood at the CBC reports that ranchers in the area initially expressed concerns about the reintroduction, worried that the bison would wander out of the park and spread disease among cattle. Heuer says the Park has plans to recapture any animal that leaves the reintroduction zone. He says he hopes that brining pregnant females to the park will help keep the herd in the area as well. “In all the advice we’ve received from bison ranchers … and reintroduction experts, that the single most important thing you can do to bond those animals to their new home is to actually have them calve successfully,” he tells Underwood.

It’s not a given that the bison will remain in the park permanently, however. This small herd is considered a five-year reversible pilot project. Harvey Locke, a writer and conservationist in the Banff area tells Monforton he doesn’t foresee any major problems. “I don't think the challenges for this herd are very large, because we know from the archeological record that bison were in this park for over 10,000 years,” he says. “I think it’s going to go very, very well, because it’s a native species in its native habitat.”

Hopefully it goes as well as the introduction of bison to the American Prairie Reserve. In 2005, 16 bison from South Dakota were released on 80 acres of land in Montana. Now the herd has grown to almost 600 bison, including some transplants from Elk Island, and range over 31,000 acres of land in Montana.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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