Elk Island National Park of Canada

History of the Herds - Wood Bison

 Wood Bison
Wood Bison
© Parks Canada / EI9912310011, 1991/12/31

By the turn of the century, there were only an estimated 500 pure wood bison remaining. To protect this remnant population, Wood Buffalo National Park was established. Under its protection, the population expanded to around 1500 by the 1920s. At that time, the plains bison herd within Buffalo National Park had expanded beyond the park's carrying capacity and a decision was made to transplant 6,673 plains bison north into Wood Buffalo National Park. It was assumed that due to the vast distances between the release site and the nearest wood bison that the two would not interbreed.
Unfortunately the plains bison did contact the resident wood bison and cross-breeding was a fact of life. The introduced plains bison carried with them bovine tuberculosis (TB) and brucellosis. By the 1940s, biologists assumed a uniform hybrid bison occupied the former wood bison range.

In 1959, Canadian Wildlife Service biologists located a herd of wood bison in the Nyarling River area in the northwestern corner of Wood Buffalo National Park. These animals exhibited all of the physical traits of pure wood bison. Due to their remote isolated location, they were assumed to be "pure" wood bison.

At Waterways AB, they were loaded onto specially designed barges and transported down the Athabasca River to Wood Buffalo National Park.
At Waterways AB, they were loaded onto specially designed barges and transported down the Athabasca River to Wood Buffalo National Park.
© Parks Canada / EI9912310013, 1991/12/31
During the early 1960s a salvage operation was undertaken and 18 wood bison were transported north as the foundation of the MacKenzie Bison Sanctuary population. 23 were transported south to Elk Island in 1965. Shortly after their arrival in Elk Island brucellosis was detected in the herd. During the next few years, an intensive test and slaughter program was implemented to eradicate this disease. As the cows produced their calf, the cow was destroyed and the calf was bottle raised. As a result, the EINP wood bison population is derived from these bottle babies.

The park can support approximately 350 animals. Animals above this number are regarded as surplus. Surplus animals are removed from the Park to establish and supplement free-roaming populations in former areas of their historic range.

During the early 1920s, 6,673 plains bison from Buffalo National Park were gathered together, then sent by train north to Waterways, AB, enroute to Wood Buffalo National Park.
During the early 1920s, 6,673 plains bison from Buffalo National Park were gathered together, then sent by train north to Waterways, AB, enroute to Wood Buffalo National Park.
© Parks Canada / EI9912310013, 1991/12/31
Once they were off-loaded the plains bison rapidly spread throughout the park, and in a short time had made contact with the resident wood bison.
Once they were off-loaded the plains bison rapidly spread throughout the park, and in a short time had made contact with the resident wood bison.
© Parks Canada / EI9912310014, 1991/12/31

The vast open areas of the Peace-Athabasca Delta then and now offer sanctuary to large numbers of bison. The vast open areas of the Peace-Athabasca Delta then and now offer sanctuary to large numbers of bison.
© Parks Canada / EI9912310015, 1991/12/31