This Week in History


A National Park is Abolished!

For the week of Monday June 25, 2001

On June 24, 1938, the abolition of Wawaskesy (Cree for "antelope") National Park (NP) received royal assent. Though an unusual occurrence, it was not the only national park to disappear: Menissawok (Cree for "common property") closed in 1930, Nemiskam (Siksika for "between two coulees") and Buffalo NP in 1947. Ironically, their disappearances reflected the national parks' success in saving two threatened species, bison (buffalo) and pronghorn antelope.

Former national parks

Former national parks
© Parks Canada / Lisa Forbes

In 1906, the federal government bought North America's last wild bison herd from Michel Pablo in Montana as part of its effort to prevent their extinction. They were shipped first to Elk Island, then to the new Buffalo National Park. By 1910, more than 700 bison had been brought to the latter, where they thrived. However, increasing numbers led to overgrazing and disease that weakened the confined herd. In 1921, the first slaughter of "surplus" animals took place. As a result of public outrage, the park subsequently shipped surplus bison north to Wood Buffalo NP, but this was a temporary solution. By 1939, the original 700 bison had produced 27 000 descendants. While the species was now safe, many individual bison in Buffalo NP were diseased and starving. In the winter of 1940-41, they were slaughtered and the park was turned over to the military.

The national park administration also took measures to save antelope whose extinction wildlife experts predicted early in the century. Dominion Parks Commissioner J.B. Harkin asked Ernest Thompson Seton to help the NP branch identify possible antelope reserves. In 1914, Seton suggested Wawaskesy, north of Medicine Hat, and Menissawok, in the Cypress Hills. The discovery of a small herd near Foremost, Alberta, and support from local landowners led to the establishment of tiny Nemiskam NP in 1915. All three became official national parks in 1922.

Bison at Buffalo National Park, AB

Bison at Buffalo National Park, AB
© Glenbow Archives, Calgary, Canada /

These parks helped bring the species back from near extinction. Park antelope were the source of herds that spread throughout the southern grasslands of Saskatchewan and Alberta. As a result, the disappearance of Menissawok and Wawaskesy went virtually unnoticed. By 1946, with almost 30 000 free-ranging antelope, there was no further need for the last park, Nemiskam.

Today, buffalo roam in Elk Island, Prince Albert and Wood Buffalo National Parks, while antelope play in Grasslands National Park. James Bernard Harkin and Ernest Thompson Seton are persons of national historic significance. The Preservation of the Plains Bison is an event of national historic significance, commemorated at Elk Island NP.

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