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Elk Island National Park of Canada

Bison Handling Operations

Parks Canada / EI9912310028 © Parks Canada / EI9912310028

Parks Canada / EI9912310029 © Parks Canada / EI9912310029

Parks Canada / EI9912310030 © Parks Canada / EI9912310030

The present plains bison handling facility was constructed during the summer of 1994 and went through its inaugural handling operation during November and December, 1994. For many decades, the plains bison population has been conditioned to migrate from its summer ranges throughout the Park to its winter range in the hay meadows adjacent to Highway 16. By mid-October, these animals begin checking the gates in the fences that surround this meadow system in an effort to gain access to the forages within. Traditionally, the bison paddock had been used as a temporary storage area prior to moving the animals to handling facilities, but with its removal during 1995, the bison are first captured in the bison trap at the north end of Pen 1, and subsequently moved south, into Pen 1 itself. Here, they are held until the natural forages within it are consumed and the bison are dependent upon artificial forages. During the latter part of this stage, the bison are fed small quantities of hay so the bison become accustomed to the feed and eventually dependent upon it. At this stage, it is relatively easy for a couple wardens to move the herd south from Pen 1 to Pen 2 through the use of feed alone, thus removing the need for extensive herding of the animals.

The time required to capture the majority of the population varies considerably from one year to the next, but generally takes about three weeks during the latter part of October and the early part of November. The intent is to have the herd in confinement prior to about the 15th to 20th of November, so that they are available for handling during the last week of November. During most years, there are an average of about 100 bulls that do not come into the facility and remain free-roaming throughout the winter months. Once the majority of the animals are captured the handling component of the operation begins.

The Plains Bison Handling Facility, constructed in 1994. The Plains Bison Handling Facility, constructed in 1994.
© Parks Canada / EI9912310031
The Flyingshot Wood Bison Handling Facility, constructed in 1992. The Flyingshot Wood Bison Handling Facility, constructed in 1992.
© Parks Canada / EI9912310027

The capture system for the wood bison is similar to that of the plains with a few modifications. Because there are no large-scale grassland areas within the Isolation Area to winter the Park's wood bison, they must either be confined to the facility or released to the rest of the Park for the duration of the winter. At the start of the capture program, the wood bison are trained to come to the corrals during the mid-part of November, where they know high-quality forage in the form of hay is provided.

The facility is checked every morning for animals that have arrived during the previous day and night. Depending upon the age and sex of the bison that are on the bait, they will be moved to separate pens. All bulls are placed within the facility itself in pens A, B and C. All cows and calves are placed within pen K. This initial segregation prevents injury to the captive bison and makes further sorting for translocation much easier.

The goals of the plains and wood bison handling operations are to:

  • Handle as many of the Park's plains bison population as is possible to obtain the best quality herd structure and productivity data;
  • Disease test (for bovine TB and brucellosis) all bison that are destined to leave the park via sales or donations. All bison that enter the system are vaccinated against BVD and the locally common cattle diseases;
  • Age and sex all bison that are handled to obtain accurate population structure data so that the herd can be properly managed;
  • Weigh all bison that are captured to determine mean weights, changes over time with age and to monitor / detect changes as a result of inter / intra-specific competition and relationships with changes in habitats;
  • Select a portion of the population for sale or donation as a means of population reduction. The size of the reduction varies from one year to the next and reflects current management strategies.