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All Aboard! Plains Bison Travel By Train to Alberta

For the week of Monday, July 11, 2016

On July 12, 1906, the Canadian government committed to buying one of the few surviving herds of plains bison from a Montana rancher. Plains bison are native to the prairie regions of North America but by the turn of the 20th century, they were largely extinct. The purchase was an important step in an ongoing effort to preserve the species.

Alexandre “Buffalo” Ayotte
© Manitoba Historical Society

Before the arrival of European hunters with horses and guns, there were millions of plains bison in North America. First Nations had relied on bison for thousands of years for food, clothing, tents and other uses. By 1889, however, the bison population had shrunk, due to over hunting, drought and disease, to less than 1200. The largest herd of healthy plains bison belonged to Métis rancher Michel Pablo in Montana. When the American government opened the herd’s grazing land to settlement, it refused to consider the bison. To save his herd, Pablo approached Alexandre Ayotte, a Canadian immigration agent, with an offer to sell his bison to the Canadian government.

Ayotte notified officials in Ottawa who sent Howard Douglas, superintendent of Rocky Mountains National Park (today’s Banff National Park), to inspect the animals. On July 12, 1906, it was agreed that Pablo would be paid $245 per animal and the sale was finalized on February 28, 1907.

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Plains Bison cow and calf
© Parks Canada

Ayotte was placed in charge of bison roundup and delivery, a task which posed many challenges. The wild bison were difficult to corral, even for an experienced crew, and the herd was larger than expected. Once the American public learned of the sale to Canada, opposition was fierce and there were numerous sabotage attempts. In the end, it took five years and eight trainloads of bison to complete the project.

The Preservation of the Plains Bison is a national historic event. Buffalo National Park near Wainwright, Alberta, which closed in 1940, was created to be a new home for the bison. They were held briefly in Elk Island National Park, where the descendants of some escapees can be seen today. In 2012, 70 bison were transferred to the American Prairie Reserve in Montana, and in April 2016, 87 bison were transferred to the Blackfeet Nation in Montana. Canada’s National Conservation Plan, launched May 15, 2014, aims to reintroduce the plains bison to Banff National Park.

For more about conservation in Canada, read Last Mountain Lake, Saving Gwaii Haanas, the "Islands of Beauty", and The Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park: An Area to Discover in Depth! in the This Week in History archives.

Follow us on Twitter @ParksCanada. Find out more about the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada.

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