Immense herds of up to 30 million bison once thundered across the plains of North America. Like their American brethren, overhunted Canadian plains bison came dangerously close to extinction in the late 1800s. In an effort to reverse the damage, Parks Canada on February 1, 2017 successfully restored 16 healthy bison—transporting them the 280 miles from Elk Island National Park, 30 miles east of Edmonton, Alberta, to their original, rightful home on the eastern slopes of Banff National Park.
This is the first step in a five-year pilot project to reintroduce the animals to the Banff wilderness. For 16 months, this initial little herd—consisting of six two- to three-year-old bulls and 10 two- to three-year-old pregnant heifers—will be kept in an enclosed pasture in Banff’s Panther Valley. A team at Parks Canada expect that, after having twice calved, they will release the herd into a larger, 1,200-square-kilometre (463-square-mile) zone in summer 2018. There, they will be free to interact with other native species and to forage for food. The idea is “to anchor these initial animals to this new landscape, so they adopt it as their new home and range.”
In 2022, Parks Canada will reevaluate the project and, if long-term bison restoration to the area is deemed feasible, develop a management plan from there. “If we didn’t think there was a good chance of this working I don’t think we ever would have started,” a spokesman says, acknowledging that if necessary for population control, Parks Canada may ultimately have to consider pulling animals out and allowing for hunting. In that case, he says priority would be given to local First Nations groups (as Canada’s indigenous peoples are known), and is careful to add, “But that’s not the emphasis—our intent isn’t to create a population for hunting opportunities.”
Once a key source of food, clothing, shelter, and religious symbolism, bison carry great spiritual and cultural meaning for the First Nations. With the 19th-century massacre of the bison herds came the end of an entire way of life. In fact, so significant is the bison to the North American and indigenous story that in recording the continent’s past, historians tend to differentiate between “bison” and “post-bison” eras.