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Elk Island National Park of Canada

Bison Roundups

Elk Island is Canada's only national park that is completely surrounded by a fence. The fence restricts the movement of the bison to areas outside the park and also restricts large predators from entering into the park. To keep the ecosystem in balance, the park must surplus bison.

The annual roundup of the Park's bison population is an activity that dates back almost 100 years. Since their arrival here in 1907, it has been necessary to bring the herds together into a central handling facility to check them for the presence of diseases, such as bovine tuberculosis (TB) and brucellosis, to vaccinate them and to select out those animals considered surplus.

These annual herd reductions took the form of slaughters for many years, with the meat going to Native bands across the country, to the armed forces overseas during the Second World War and, for awhile, sold to the Canadian public through various retail outlets. By the mid-1960s, the concept of shooting animals in our national parks became less acceptable to the public and, in 1967, the first live sales of plains bison took place. There was considerable trepidation at the time by park management about the long-term feasibility of such a venture. After all, who would want to buy these animals? The sales were such a success, however, that slaughters were discontinued shortly afterward. For many years, the bison were sold through the sealed-tender bid process but this was changed to live auctions in 1994.

The Flyingshot Wood Bison Handling Facility. The Flyingshot Wood Bison Handling Facility, constructed in 1992.
© Parks Canada

Because the park is fenced and the bison are not able to emigrate on their own, continued herd reductions are a requirement that will remain as long as bison remain in the Park. To do this, two state-of-the-art handling facilities were designed and built for the sole purpose of efficiently and humanely handling the plains and wood bison. Every bison in the Park is put through these systems during the late autumn and early winter. There, they are weighed, aged, sexed, disease tested for TB and brucellosis, eartagged with a small tag that identifies them and the year of their birth, vaccinated against several bovine diseases and the surplus animals selected out from the herd. The entire process can take up to two months to complete. Once the handling is completed and the herd is once again tested disease free, the plains bison destined to remain in the park are placed in a large grassland area just north of Highway 16, where they stay during the remainder of the winter months. The wood bison are held in a large fenced enclosure adjacent to the facility. It is necessary to keep the park bison confined to these areas during the majority of the winter in order for the trapping and relocation of surplus elk to be successful. Once the required number of elk have been captured and removed, usually by early to mid-February, the gates to these winter pastures are opened and the herds slowly disperse back throughout the rest of the Park.

The entire process is repeated later in the winter with the wood bison. These animals reside south of Highway 16 and are subject to the same management criteria as the plains bison. The surplus wood bison, however, are destined for a life in the wilds of northern Canada. Each year, Elk Island National Park and various co-operating agencies and governments select and then translocate wood bison into areas of their historic ranges. There these new herds grow, expand and, hopefully, become viable populations once again.

Because nothing in nature is static, the management of the wildlife resources in Elk Island National Park is also dynamic and constantly changing and adapting to host of influences. From droughts and floods to severe and mild winters, nature impacts wildlife in the park. As a result, the number of animals considered to be at or near the carrying capacity of the Park is constantly changing. Present bison management actions result in a pre-calving population of around 450 plains bison and 350 wood bison.