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021 Plains Bison return to Banff

I was really pleased to record the presentations at the Buffalo Homecoming celebrations held on March 2, 2017 at the Cave and Basin National Historic Site. The Eleanor Luxton Foundation and Bison Belong co-sponsored the event which was a gala evening with first nations blessings, dancing and drums – and some amazing stories. The return of plains bison to Banff National Park has been a long time coming – more than 130 years.

Bison are not only a keystone species in the mountain national parks, but their absence has been reflected in the very ecosystems that the park was designed to protect.

Ecosystems began to change immediately after the loss of bison, reflecting the absence of this key ecological component of the  landscape. When biologists talk about ecological integrity, they are talking about preserving all the components of that ecosystem. For thousands of years, bison were one of the defining characteristics of most western landscapes. The sound of their thundering hooves could be heard for miles and they helped to define the landscape in which they lived. In the end, they were reduced to just 64 animals.

Like a beaver can alter the landscape around it and benefit many other species, so do plains bison re-engineer the prairie and mountain landscape. Bison are aggressive grazers, helping keep trees from encroaching onto grasslands. At the same time they are also prodigious producers of, well buffalo apples. These patties feed massive numbers of insects which, in turn, support ever increasing numbers of insect eating birds.

a cartoon image showing bison being helicoptered into Banff National Park
A whimsical look at the return of the plains bison to Banff National Park

This reintroduction is about more than just ecology. It combines cultural, historical and ecological values. To members of the first nations of the eastern slopes and prairies of Canada and the U.S., bison were an integral part of their culture and lives, long before the coming of the white man. The west was home to many different tribes, many of which have long been traditional enemies. Despite local animosities, there was always one thing that bound them together – bison. In 2015, eleven different tribes signed a historic buffalo treaty. The signatories include Canada’s Blackfoot Confederacy: Blood, Piikani, Siksika, and TsuuT’ina; and in Montana, the Blackfeet Nation, the Assiniboine and Gros Ventre Tribes of Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of Fort Peck Indian Reservation, the Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Indian Reservation. Since this original treaty, the three nations of the Stoney Nakoda, the Samson Cree and 10 additional first nations groups from Saskatchewan have also joined in the signing.

In episode 19, I shared a little information on the recent re-introduction of bison into Banff National Park. During this event, you’ll hear the stories of the event from the people responsible for doing it. Harvey Locke shares some of the history of the project and of the genesis of the initiative. His passion really sets the scene for this story of reintroduction and renewal. If this project is successful, Banff’s bison herd will join only three other wild herds of bison in North America

Parks Canada Employee and author Karsten Heuer was in charge of the project. His presentation details the incredible efforts that were required to pull this reintroduction off. Along with long and very inclusive public consultations and environmental impact assessments, as the project lead, it was his job to coordinate the many moving parts that would be necessary in order to get to the point we are today – a day with wild bison once again roaming their native landscapes in the mountain national parks.

The logistics were daunting. The bison had to first be selected. They were selected based on several criteria. They were disease free, a critical aspect of any reintroduction, but they were also young , giving them many opportunities to produce new offspring during their lifetime. All of the females were pregnant, and they are joined by six young bulls  to help keep the herd going.

They are currently being held in an 18 hectare (45 acre) soft release pasture until they’ve had the chance to give birth twice – giving them time to bond to their new home range prior to being released to a much larger temporary habitat.

photo of plains bison as they emerged from their shipping containers as they were reintroducted to Banff National Park.
Plains Bison charge out of the shipping container to explore their new home. (Banff National Park Image)

Imagine the logistics of this relocation! They loaded the bison into specially designed shipping containers that were attached to a long line and transported by a heavy lift helicopter. Each container held 3 or 4 bison with their horns covered by pieces of garden hose held on with duct tape. They were also tranquilized slightly to help reduce their stress while still allowing them to stand during the transport. Each shipping container also deployed a parachute to provide drag and help prevent them from spinning during their helicopter journey to their new home.

After the last crate was successfully delivered, they crates were kept closed for an additional 30 minutes to give the buffalo time to calm down. When all the conditions were right, the doors to the shipping containers were opened and the bison all emerged into their new home. They’ll remain here until June of 2018 when park officials plan to release them to a much larger 1200 sq km or 463 sq mile reintroduction zone.

Along the way, there are lots of performance measures that will help them to reassess the success of the project. In 2022, they hope to be able to come to the decision as to whether long-term bison reintroduction is feasible in Banff National Park. This project is one of the largest of its kind in the mountain national parks. It involved very close consultations with many first nations, environmental and conservation groups. I hope you’re as excited about this as I am. Bison have been missing from Banff for almost as long as Canada has been a nation. I can’t wait for the day when I first encounter a wild bison in Banff National Park.

I want to especially thank Marie-eve Marchand with Bison Belong for collaborating with me to record the audio for this presentation. Her tireless work towards bringing these majestic animals back to Banff deserves all of our thanks. Special thanks also go out to Karsten Heuer for all the work he and his team at Parks Canada did to pull off this amazing feat of logistics and careful planning. This could be one of the most significant events to take place in the mountain parks for many years to come. Special thanks also go out to Harvey Locke with the Eleanor Luxton Foundation for the great work they do in preserving Banff’s natural and human history.

Finally, I want to thank the politicians across the various political lines that cooperated with the project as well as the numerous native elders and counselors that were integral to moving this process towards completion.

Once again, we are all buffalo people.

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