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Banff National Park

Plains Bison Reintroduction in Banff National Park 

Plains Bison Reintroduction

On Friday, March 6, 2015, Mr. Blake Richards, Member of Parliament for Wild Rose, on behalf of the Honourable Leona Aglukkaq, Minister of the Environment and Minister responsible for Parks Canada, announced an initiative that would see the historic return of the plains bison to Banff National Park. This investment is designed to support Canada’s National Conservation Plan (NCP).

The NCP, launched by Prime Minister Stephen Harper on May 15, 2014, provides a shared and coherent vision to advance conservation efforts across the country. The investment of $6.4 million over five years will directly contribute to the NCP by taking concrete action in two priority areas: to restore ecological integrity and connect Canadians with nature.

This project will reintroduce a small herd of plains bison in Banff National Park. A keystone species that has been absent from the park since its establishment, plains bison once played a key role in the park's montane ecosystem.

Through this project, Parks Canada will provide Canadians with an opportunity to connect with this iconic species. In addition, Parks Canada will invite First Nations to share traditional knowledge of plains bison, and participate in stewardship, management and celebrations and will engage students and volunteers to participate in bison research, monitoring and stewardship activities.

Conservation and restoration initiatives in our national parks provide amazing opportunities for Canadians to connect with nature and for stakeholders and partners — including Aboriginal partners — to work together. With these projects, Parks Canada restoring native species and natural ecological processes back into these jewels of the Canadian landscape and creating opportunities for visitors to connect with nature.

“Our Government is taking action to protect our rich natural heritage for all Canadians now and in the future. Successfully restoring this keystone species in Banff will allow visitors, neighbours and the public at large to experience an authentic national park experience.”

Mr. Blake Richards
Member of Parliament for Wild Rose

National Conservation Plan  

Parks Canada  

Why Bring Back the Bison? | Considerations in the Modern World | An Opportunity for Involvement and StewardshipReintroduction Plan for Plains Bison to Banff National Park (PDF, 627 KB) | What We Heard – Bison Reintroduction Public Consultations (PDF, 204 KB)

Why Bring Back the Bison?

The 2010 Banff National Park Management Plan commits Parks Canada to:

"Reintroduce a breeding population of the extirpated plains bison, a keystone species that has been absent from the park since its establishment" and to "Work with stakeholders and neighbouring jurisdictions to address potential concerns through joint management strategies before reintroduction."

Although they have been absent since before the park was created in 1885, plains bison once roamed freely through much of what is now Banff National Park. Reintroducing plains bison into Banff National Park is important for several reasons:

  • ECOLOGICAL RESTORATION: Bison were historically the dominant herbivore in the area of Banff National Park, and they played a key role in the ecosystem. Through their grazing and physical disturbance, bison helped create and maintain the patchwork of meadows, grasslands and other open habitats upon which they, and many other animals and plants, depend. Bison were also a food resource for predators and scavengers. Similarly, decomposing bison carcasses provided a flush of nutrients for soil microorganisms and plants. Restoring bison is an important step toward restoring the full diversity of species and natural processes to Banff’s ecosystem, and to delivering on a core element of Parks Canada’s mandate.
  • INSPIRING DISCOVERY: Having a chance to see and learn about the full range of native species is integral to an authentic national park experience. Bison are inspirational, not only because of their impressive size and power, but as ‘ecosystem engineers’ and cultural icons of our landscape. Successfully restoring this keystone species in the modern world will foster new and enrich existing opportunities for visitors, neighbours and the public at large to learn about and join Parks Canada in the reintroduction journey 
  • CULTURAL RECONNECTION: Bison were an integral part of the lives and livelihoods of First Nations peoples and many of our pioneers, and are an icon of Canada’s history. Restoring them to the landscape is an opportunity to restore cultural and historical connections that have been lost for more than a century.

Considerations in the Modern World

 /Dan Rafla © Parks Canada

Times have changed since the bison ranged in great herds throughout central North America. Bison are migratory animals - archaeological evidence suggests a regular seasonal migration and that at least some of them roamed hundreds of kilometres over their lifetimes. Today, Banff National Park contains a town, a village, a national highway and rail transportation corridor, and a wide range of recreational and tourist facilities that host more than 3 million visitors a year. Along the park's eastern boundary in the province of Alberta, the values and interests of land-owners, communities, recreationists, as well as agricultural, forestry, and oil and gas industries, must be considered and protected.

There are always unknowns when planning and undertaking any ecological restoration project, hence the need for a precautionary approach and adaptive management. Questions include the best location for an initial reintroduction; strategies for bringing individuals into a new habitat and containing them within designated core areas, in summer and winter; and maintaining a long-term viable, healthy population within the carrying capacity of park lands.

A number of conservation initiatives over the past few decades have provided a solid foundation for bison reintroduction in Banff National Park. These include an extensive prescribed burn program to restore productive grassland habitats; the continued presence of the bison's natural predators - wolves and grizzly bears - in the ecosystem; and recent successes in lowering the elk population to closer to historic levels, thereby reducing the potential for elk/bison competition. The construction of wildlife fencing and crossing structures along the Trans-Canada Highway has greatly reduced the risk of wildlife-vehicle collisions, and work is underway to reduce wildlife mortality on the Canadian Pacific Railway.

An Opportunity for Involvement and Stewardship

The public comment period on the reintroduction of plains bison to Banff National Park, which ran from September 9, 2013 until November 1, 2013 is now complete. Through this process, Canadians had the opportunity to shape and inform Parks Canada's plans for the future of bison in Canada's first national park.

Over 1000 Canadians and people from around the world shared their views on bison reintroduction. These comments will help guide Parks Canada on how to move forward on this unique ecological restoration project.

Bison © Dan Rafla / Parks Canada

For more information: 
Karsten Heuer
Project Manager, Banff Bison Reintroduction
Banff National Park of Canada  
Ph: 403-762-1578