Wood Bison standing in Wood Buffalo National Park of Canada
Wood Bison in Wood Buffalo National Park of Canada.

Wood bison are the largest land mammals in North America. Historical estimates suggest that there were once over 168,000 wood bison in Canada. Heavy hunting and severe winters are believed to be the main causes for the historical decline of the wood bison population. Today, the wood bison population in Canada is estimated at around 10,000 animals. Wood bison are classified as threatened by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). A National Recovery Plan for Wood Bison was published by the National Wood Bison Recovery Team in 2001 and recovery measures were undertaken by Parks Canada and its partners.

What is the Wood bison?

Herd of Wood Bison in Wood Buffalo National Park of Canada.
Wood Bison feed mainly on sedges and grasses, but also on the leaves and bark of trees and shrubs (primarily willow) and lichen.

Wood bison, considered to be a northern subspecies of the American bison, are the largest land mammals in North America. Males can stand up to two meters high at the shoulders, and can weigh up to a tonne. The females are smaller than the males.

Wood bison are darker brown in color than plains bison. They have long legs, a prominent hump, a short tasseled tail, thick shaggy hair on the head and neck, and a beard. Their curved black horns and sharp hooves serve as weapons for defense against predators such as wolves.

Wood bison roam freely through the boreal forest in mixed herds of cows, calves, yearlings, and a few bulls. Some bulls will form their own groups, while others roam on their own. Bison have keen hearing and a good sense of smell, and are able to quickly detect changes in their environment.

Bison are the largest land mammals in North America. A bull can stand up to two meters in height and weigh more than a tonne. Wood Buffalo National Park of Canada, Canada’s largest national park, has the largest free-roaming bison herd in the world.

Bison are at their most dangerous during the rutting season, which occurs from July to mid-September. During this time the herds are restless, and aggressive behavior can be seen as the bulls compete with each other to mate with females. At any time of year, bison should be given a wide berth, as they will sometimes charge when agitated.

Where is the Wood bison found?

Historically, wood bison ranged throughout northern Alberta, northwestern Saskatchewan, southwest Northwest Territories, and in the Yukon. Today there are both wild and captive herds in Alberta, Manitoba, British Columbia, Yukon, and southwest Northwest Territories.

The Wood Buffalo National Park of Canada herd has approximately 5600 animals (as of 2005), and is the largest free-roaming herd left in the world.

What is the status of the Wood bison?

Close-up of the head of a young Wood Bison calf.
Young calf in Wood Buffalo National Park of Canada, Female usually give birth to a single calf in May after a 270 – 300 days gestation period.

Wood bison are classified as threatened by the COSEWIC. Historical estimates suggest that there were once over 168,000 wood bison in Canada. Today, the wood bison population in Canada is estimated at around 10,000 animals. This includes free-ranging herds (some of which have been exposed to disease), as well as captive breeding herds. In Wood Buffalo National Park of Canada there are approximately 5000 wood bison today.

Why is the Wood Bison in danger?

Heavy hunting and severe winters are believed to be the main causes for the historical decline of the wood bison population in Canada. The first law prohibiting the hunting of wood bison was introduced in 1877 but later repealed. It wasn’t until 1893, when the wood bison population may have dropped as low as 300 animals, that protective legislation was again enacted. In 1911, buffalo rangers were appointed to strengthen enforcement of the hunting ban. By the time Wood Buffalo National Park of Canada was established in 1922, the wood bison population had increased to approximately 1500 animals.

6673 plains bison from southern Alberta were shipped to the park between 1925 and 1928, bringing tuberculosis and brucellosis with them. These diseases are still found in the Wood Buffalo herd today. Occasional outbreaks of anthrax also occur.

Over the years, there have been instances of mass drownings when herds of bison attempted to cross-thin ice in the spring, and other drownings due to spring floods. 2000 bison drowned in Wood Buffalo National Park of Canada in 1956, and another 3000 animals drowned in 1974. Such events, while rare, are natural and cannot be prevented.

Why protect the Wood Bison?

Two Wood Bison in Wood Buffalo national Park of Canada.
Wood Bison have keen hearing and a good sense of smell, and are able to quickly detect changes in their environment.

A National Recovery Plan for Wood Bison was published in 2001. The goals of the plan are to re-establish a minimum of four viable, healthy, free-roaming wood bison populations in their original range and other herds where potential exists, and to establish long-term cooperative management programs for wood bison in which Aboriginal people and rural communities play an integral role.

The National Wood Bison Recovery Team includes representatives from the federal government (Environment Canada and Parks Canada), provincial governments (Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, Yukon, and Northwest Territories), as well as a university/college representative and a member of the public.

What is Parks Canada doing to save the Wood Bison?

Wood Buffalo National Park of Canada protects the habitat of the largest self-regulating free-roaming bison herd in the world. Bison surveys are conducted annually to monitor the bison population. Two types of surveys are done each year – a total count, and a segregation count. The total count provides a population estimate, while the segregation count provides an estimate of productivity (number of cows, calves, yearlings, bulls, etc.). The numbers of wood bison in the park have been increasing since 1999.

Bison are often featured in public education programs, as well as in non-personal media such as publications, exhibits, and interpretive signs. The Nyarling Interpretive Pull-off in the park features information about bison, as do exhibits at the Visitor Reception Centre. Visitors often experience viewing the free roaming bison along the roads in the park, from the safety of their vehicle, for a truly wild and special experience.

How can I help?

Wood Bison swimming
Wood Bison swimming in Wood Buffalo National Park of Canada. The park is home of approximately 5600 wood bison, the largest free roaming bison herd in the world.
  • Be a good steward of your land, and support the efforts of organizations that help protect the environment. Try to reduce your ecological footprint.
  • Learn more about bison through reading or on the Internet. Share with others what you have learned.
  • If you visit Wood Buffalo National Park of Canada, you can learn about bison at the Nyarling Interpretive Pull-off along Highway 5,and at the Visitor Reception Centre in Fort Smith. The Visitor Reception Centre features exhibits, publications, and videos.