Parks Canada is welcoming six plains bison to Waterton Lakes National Park, a move that is ecologically significant for the park and culturally significant for Indigenous communities in southern Alberta.
“Every time a tribe or a park starts a herd, that’s wonderful news for our people because it means strengthening our culture, it means revitalizing of our grasslands and the bringing back biodiversity, which is good for the land,” said Prof. Leroy Little Bear, a member of the Kainai Nation and a special advisor to the president at the University of Lethbridge.
The six young bison were released into the winter bison paddocks on Feb. 19.
Little Bear says the bison are a key species in the songs, stories and ceremonies of Indigenous culture.
There are buffalo jumps and “all over the Waterton Lakes area,” he said, noting some of those historical sites were exposed by the Kenow wildfire that tore through the area four years ago.
Little Bear said the Blood Tribe has been working with national parks, and Waterton in particular, to bring buffalo back to the area.
“Sometime in the foreseeable future, we might use them, as the herd grows, for economic purposes. But right now, our intent is to focus on cultural purposes and research, you know, cultural aspects, the land and so on,” Little Bear said.
“Those are the kind of things we want to work on with Waterton. And we’re very, very thankful to the national park service for working with us, partnering with us in this buffalo restoration.”
Bison welcomed with prayer ceremony
On Feb. 19, as the animals arrived, they were blessed in a physically distanced prayer ceremony by Blackfoot Confederacy elders from Kainai Nation, Piikani Nation and Siksika Nation.
“It was a wonderful sight to see those buffalo come off the trailers and running to the paddock.… It was a wonderful sight to see them, you know, coming to their new homes,” said Little Bear.
Parks Canada says people will be able to view the bison when they move to the summer paddocks in the spring. At that time, visitors will be able to cruise around the summer paddock loop road for viewing.
It’s a welcome return, said Kimberly Pearson, a nature legacy ecosystem scientist with Parks Canada at Waterton, for a park that has hosted a herd of bison since 1952 — until the 2017 Kenow fire.
“Since 1952, there’s been a small herd within the summer and winter bison paddocks. They alternate between those paddocks through the year,” Pearson said, noting the herd was relocated as the fire approached, mostly to Grasslands National Park.
Impact on ecosystem
Pearson said there is quite a bit of research surrounding the return of the bison and their impact on the ecosystem.
“Waterton Lakes National Park has some science happening on the ground, actually a fairly large science program around post-fire ecology, the ecology within the landscape following the Kenow wildfire. And some of that research includes the bison paddock,” she said.
“One researcher, in particular, has really taken a close look at the vegetation, both before and following the wildfire. And going forward, they can now look at the ecological impacts of bison on that area as well as fire.”
Pearson said the impact of the bison is expected to be positive, especially in the wake of the fire.
“They’re called ecosystem engineers. They alter the landscape in ways that are really beneficial to virtually all plants and animals, and restoring them benefits the entire ecosystem from top predators all the way down through the soils,” Pearson said.
The new bison have been transferred from Elk Island National Park. There are four females and two males.
“In a couple of years, they will start reproducing, and building up their numbers,” Pearson said. “So we will start seeing calves on the ground, probably a couple of springs from now — so something to look forward to.”