A Bison Homecoming
Plains Bison Running
© Bob Bittner
On January 24, 2012, Elk Island National Park transferred 70 plains bison to American Prairie Reserve on the Great Plains north of the Missouri River in northeastern Montana. The 2012 partnering project between Parks Canada and American Prairie Foundation achieved a full-circle journey for North America’s plains bison. It represents a significant international conservation project that contributes to the continued survival and well-being of an animal that is the undisputed symbol of North America’s vast interior plains. (see news release)
Plains Bison in Canada
For centuries bison were the source of life's necessities and a focus of social and ceremonial life for the Aboriginal people of the North American plains. By 1900, overhunting and the advance of the agricultural frontier brought bison to the verge of extinction; fewer than 200 plains bison were left in the world.
In the early 1900s, a few private citizens in the United States and Canada made efforts to save the species. In 1906, the last large herd of wild plains bison, the Pablo-Allard herd, was sold by Michel Pablo to the Government of Canada for $245 apiece. In 1907, 410 plains bison were shipped to Alberta from Montana – approximately 200 in May and the remainder in September. The animals were sent by train in 17 freight cars from Ravalli, Montana, to the Village of Lamont, Alberta, where they were herded to their new home at the newly established Elk Park, Alberta. The herd was eventually distributed throughout various national parks and most of today's surviving plains bison are their descendants.
Elk Park became Elk Island National Park in 1913. Today, Elk Island National Park is Canada’s seventh smallest and only entirely-fenced national park. Due to an absence of natural predators, the bison herd within the fenced area must be kept at levels that preserve grazing habitat. Periodically, bison must be transferred out of the park in order to ensure that the habitat is not over-grazed. This creates an opportunity for Elk Island National Park to provide bison to conservation projects both here in Canada, and internationally.
The Bison Homecoming: Return to Montana
The first transfer between Elk Island National Park and American Prairie Foundation occurred in 2009-2010 when 93 bison were moved to American Prairie Reserve on the Great Plains north of the Missouri River in northeastern Montana. The January 2012 transfer was another homecoming that to re-introduce 70 plains bison to their original habitat at American Prairie Reserve. The January 2012 transfer increased the Reserve’s herd to more than 210 bison - a significant step in bringing them “home.” Partnering with American Prairie Foundation has been a unique conservation initiative, and an international success.
The Government of Canada’s commitment to conservation initiatives is not limited by international borders. Elk Island National Park manages recovery herds for both plains and wood bison; its herds are disease-free. All of Canada’s plains bison conservation herds originated in Elk Island National Park and because of their high genetic diversity and long history of disease-free status, it will always be the priority conservation herd in Canada for supplying plains bison to national and international projects.
The “bison homecoming” is a heart-warming chapter in the history of the near-extinction and slow comeback of plains bison in North America. American Prairie Foundation’s work to set aside lands for prairie wildlife has united with Canada’s work in conserving plains bison to strengthen a future for a magnificent animal that is part of the shared heritage of both nations.
The Preservation of Plains Bison – A National historic Event
Elk Island National Park, located along the Yellowhead Highway 45 kilometres east of Edmonton, has been proudly managing foundation herds of elk and bison for over a century. In 1946, the “Preservation of the Plains Bison” was designated as a National Historic Event. A Historic Sites and Monuments Board plaque at Astotin Lake in Elk Island National Park commemorates the Park’s nationally significant role in the survival of plains bison.
In 2011, Parks Canada celebrated 100 years since it was established as the Dominion Parks Service, the first federal agency in the world managing national parks. Today, because of initiatives like bison and elk conservation in Elk Island National Park, Parks Canada is a recognized leader in the conservation and preservation of natural and cultural heritage.
Plains bison are the better-known of the two sub-species, and as the iconic “buffalo” of the North American prairies. Diligent herd management has resulted in the eradication of disease, allowing Elk Island National Park to build a foundation for conservation projects throughout the bisons’ former range. Elk Island National Park is doing what it has done best for more than a century – supporting the relocation of disease-free animals such as plains bison, wood bison, and elk.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) and Parks Canada are integral partners. CFIA certifies the animals as disease-free for conservation transfers, including the January 2012 to American Prairie Reserve. CFIA, in co-operation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has developed a disease testing and treatment protocol for the animals and a veterinary health certificate that both countries have agreed to for this export-import of bison. The bison have been weighed, ear tagged, tested for specific diseases, treated with antibiotics, and certified as disease-free based on the health certificate. The bison are quarantined for 60 days in Canada and again for 30 days upon their arrival in Montana.
Safety of the plains bison is top priority for all stages of the transfer. Elk Island National Park staff have unique expertise and a long history in managing, caring for and handling bison and are assisted by a Parks Canada veterinarian. Animal welfare specialist, lecturer, and author Temple Grandin consulted on the design of Elk Island National Park’s state-of-the-art bison handling facility. American Prairie Foundation works with scientists from World Wildlife Fund to ensure the herd is healthy and well-managed at their Reserve.
On January 24, 2012, 70 bison were loaded into trailers at Elk Island National Park and transported by a company experienced in bison transport. The animals travelled in these specially sealed trailers through Customs to a quarantine area near Malta, Montana. In March 2012, the bison will be released at American Prairie Reserve.
Bison can be seen by visitors to Elk Island National Park. North of the Yellowhead Highway on the Elk Island Parkway, watch for plains bison and other wildlife such as moose. The park area on the south side of the Yellowhead Highway is dedicated to wood bison. The wood bison roam the hills and forage along the lakes and can be viewed from hiking trails and along the Park's boundaries.
Click here to read the official press release.
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