Alberta’s national parks bison herds thriving in the shadows of their ancestors, enriching local Indigenous culture

Nearing the end of their bison reintroduction pilot project, parks staff and management continue to discover new and interesting things about the Banff National Park free-roaming bison herd

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Since the devastating Kenow wildfire engulfed 35,000 hectares of southern Alberta in 2017, Parks Canada and Waterton Lakes National Park staff have been waiting for the right moment to reintroduce bison to the landscape.

After moving the existing herd of 10 bison to Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan in September 2017, parks staff were waiting for the landscape to recover enough to support the herd before bringing them back.

And as of late February 2021, they’ve done just that, with the help of the Kainai First Nation and Elk Island National Park, a new herd of six plains bison was transported to a new home.

“There are four females and two males, all almost a year old and they were transported by a local bison specialist who is a member of the Kainai Nation,” said Kimberly Pearson, a nature legacy scientist with Parks Canada in Waterton. “We also had elders from the three Blackfoot Nations in Alberta — Kainai, Piikani and Siksika Nation — help us welcome and bless the bison.”

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The bison herd will soon be moving from its winter to its summer paddock, which, combined, make up about 230 hectares of land.

Indigenous involvement in the project has been key, Pearson said.

“Parks Canada has managed a herd of bison in Waterton Lakes National Park since 1952 and we’ve taken the opportunity here in returning them to the land and involving Indigenous community members and helping us celebrate and supporting them in deepening their relationships with the animals.”

Leroy Little Bear, a Blood Tribe member, researcher, University of Lethbridge professor and Order of Canada recipient, said the team effort to get bison back to the landscape has been an incredibly rewarding experience.

“Blackfoot people have a close relationship to the buffalo and we’ve been working since 2008 to bring buffalo back to wherever we can see it,” he said. “Our elders were talking about needing to see the buffalo because they really are a keystone species not just for sustenance purposes but for the environment, for eco-balance and also for our culture.”

The Blood Tribe also has its own small herd of plains bison, received about a week before the herd arrived at Waterton. Little Bear said it felt like a homecoming.

“Our elders’ dream is to see free-roaming buffalo, but they were also realistic,” he said. “So wherever we can see buffalo, all the better … It helps us revitalize our culture and for our young generation coming up it’s so important for them to see buffalo because of those cultural connections.”

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Little Bear said he owes thanks to Parks Canada and the parks involved in the project that helped “fulfil that dream our people had.”

Banff bison reintroduction project entering its fourth year

Nearing the end of their bison reintroduction pilot project, parks staff and management continue to discover new and interesting things about the Banff National Park free-roaming bison herd.

The project started when 17 animals, also from Elk Island National Park, were released and held in a Banff backcountry pasture to anchor them to the area. Two calving seasons later, the official start of the project saw 34 bison sent to freely roam a 1,200-square-kilometre reintroduction area in 2018.

Aerial and map of the bison reintroduction zone – it covers 1,200 square kilometres, roughly 1/5 the size of the whole park.
Aerial and map of the bison reintroduction zone – it covers 1,200 square kilometres, roughly 1/5 the size of the whole park. Photo by Supplied image/ Parks Canada

Since then, the herd has continued to grow; there are now 50 animals and on the cusp of another calving season, around 20 more are expected in the next few months.

Karsten Heuer, the project’s manager with Parks Canada in Banff National Park, said the herd fits right into the landscape and is thriving in the environment.

“They’re continuing to explore the area, though their rate of exploration has slowed down,” he said. “They have some well-set patterns and some favourite areas now, which is great to see from our perspective because we were really hoping they would anchor to the area and it appears they are.”

The team has committed to monitoring the population and the ecosystem throughout the five-year pilot, set to expire in 2022, to understand the effect the bison are having on other animals, water quality and vegetation to determine the viability of continuing the project long term.

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Heuer said there have been some surprising things they’ve learned, but for the most part the project is going as expected.

“One of the things that’s been a surprise is the extent to which they’re using the alpine habitats like right up to high avalanche start zones, extremely high alpine meadows and even ridge tops during the summer season,” he said. “Despite having come from a completely flat environment in Elk Island, they’ve very quickly figured out that it pays during the growing season to follow that pathway of emerging vegetation.”

The bison reintroduction project is in its fourth year come late summer 2021 and project managers are regularly making new discoveries about the unique herd and their behaviour.
The bison reintroduction project is in its fourth year come late summer 2021 and project managers are regularly making new discoveries about the unique herd and their behaviour. Photo by Supplied image/ Parks Canada Banff National Park

Heuer added the herd is retracing the steps of its ancestors from hundreds and thousands of years ago through a specific behaviour.

“Bison create these wallows there they dig shallow depressions in some of their favourite meadow systems by horning into the ground and stomping their hooves,” Heuer said. “What’s happened now that the animals are back on the landscape is they’ve actually gone in and started reactivating some of these historic wallows and are wallowing now in the exact same places their ancestors did hundreds of thousands of years ago.”

Heuer said in some cases their wallowing in the ancient sites has unearthed the bones of their ancestors, which researchers then extracted and studied.

With only five remaining free-roaming bison populations in North America, Heuer said it’s a gift that Banff’s herd is one of them.

“If you think about evolution and natural selection, it’s those forces of nature that have shaped bison into the beautiful, sculpted, incredibly well-adapted animals they are today … Although there’s tens of thousands of bison across North American, there’s only a few thousand that are actually continuing to be shaped by those forces.”

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Like in Waterton, Banff’s project was, and continues to be, impacted and inspired by Indigenous Peoples in the area through blessing ceremonies and knowledge exchange.

“We think of all these physical preparations we did for bringing bison back,” Heuer said. “But the spiritual preparations were really, really important and I personally believe a large part of the success we’ve had so far is due to that attention to that spiritual preparation.”

An example of the knowledge exchange is Stoney Nakoda Nation’s involvement in a bison study last fall that saw a small team of Parks Canada staff and three Stoney members, one each from Bearspaw, Chiniki and Wesley, head into the reintroduction zone on horseback for a five-day trip.

The Banff National Park bison herd has grown significantly, to 50 animals in early 2020 from only 16 when they were first reintroduced to the area in 2017.
The Banff National Park bison herd has grown significantly, to 50 animals in early 2020 from only 16 when they were first reintroduced to the area in 2017. Photo by Supplied image/ Parks Canada Banff National Park

William Snow, consultation manager for Stoney Tribal Administration, said fieldwork has been an important part of the study.

“We’re focusing more on the traditional knowledge side but working within a western science system,” he said. “Hopefully, people will see not only the western value but the traditional value of these iconic places, how we can learn from them, protect them and help them to become and stay more biodiverse.”

Though bison herds have existed in the Bow Valley for the last 45 years, and on Stoney lands, Snow said he encourages all First Nations to reintroduce bison onto their traditional lands.

“There’s a way to manage the herd and live in harmony with the species and I think that’s something inherent that Indigenous people have and that’s why this project is important because we’re able, like no other project, to work with parks towards a shared goal of returning a culturally important species back to a culturally important landscape.”

Results of the bison cultural study, which was sponsored and funded by the Canada Mountain Network, are expected in 2022.

ocondon@postmedia.com

Twitter: @oliviacondon

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