Protecting bison cannot be done alone.

Photo: Stefano Liccioli/Parks Canada

Parks Canada works in partnership with many Indigenous communities to help bison grow and thrive. Bringing the bison back can rekindle the longstanding relationship between Indigenous peoples and bison. Learn how Parks Canada’s bison transfers have been key to this process.


Bison decline

Bison are North America’s largest land mammal. Before European colonization, tens of millions of bison roamed many parts of the continent. By the late 1800s, their population was reduced to near extinction from overhunting and industrial demand. Only around 1000 bison remained.

An illustration of thousands of bison stretching the entire landscape as far as the eye can see.
"The Herd," drawn from memory, by Martin S. Garretson. Image courtesy of the University of Alberta Archives.
A man stands on top of a giant pile of bison bones, much larger than he, while a second man stands below.
The bones of bison were used in the refinement of sugar and the creation of fertilizer and gunpowder. © Glenbow Archives NA-2242-2
A single bison stands in a vast green landscape.
A Plains Bison in Grasslands National Park.

Bison and the land

Bison play an important role in shaping landscapes as ‘ecosystem engineers’. Bison behaviours create conditions and habitats that can benefit many other plants and animals.

A bison with patchy brown fur on green grassy plains walks past a small mammal who watches him closely from its mound.
Bison are often attracted to graze within or at the edge of prairie dog colonies, where they can find high quality forage. Photo: Stefano Liccioli/Parks Canada
A bison grazes snow-covered frozen grass.
Bison still graze even in the wintertime. Photo: Stefano Liccioli/Parks Canada

Bison waste incubates insect eggs and larvae. Many endangered prairie bird species eat insects. They benefit from the bison’s influence on insect presence. Endangered prairie birds also benefit from bison’s grazing patterns. Bison are helping Parks Canada manage the habitat of at-risk prairie bird species and their recovery.

A group of bison stand in a brown grassy plain surrounded by a flock of birds.
A herd of Plains Bison and flock of prairie birds at Grasslands National Park. Photo: Stefano Liccioli/Parks Canada
A small grey bird with golden markings stands camouflaged in short dried grass.
The McCown’s Longspur enjoys shorter grasses that have been grazed by bison.
A small speckled bird with a white belly stands in dried grass that is as tall as the bird.
The Sprague’s Pipit enjoys longer grasses that have not been heavily grazed by bison.

Bison create “wallows” when they roll in the dirt to take dust baths. Wallows can fill with water when it rains, and provide important habitat for many prairie wildlife. Bison also spread seeds around as they travel. Birds use their fallen fur for nesting.

Six bison stand in a dry grassy plain. One bison rolls on its side, creating a cloud of dust.
Bison take dust baths which create wallows that benefit other wildlife. Photo: Stefano Liccioli/Parks Canada

Parks Canada conserves the only two subspecies of bison in North America: Plains Bison and Wood Bison.

Plains Bison have a:

  • large, bushy hairstyle on their head
  • rounder back hump that sits directly over their front legs
  • historic range as far south as Mexico, as far east as Florida, but were most common on the Great Plains
A single bison walks through golden grasslands with rolling hills in the background.
A Plains Bison walks through the prairie ecosystem at Grasslands National Park. Photo: Ryan Bray/Parks Canada

Wood Bison have:

  • bigger and taller bodies
  • smaller, pointier beards, darker fur, and hair that droops over their forehead
  • a tall and triangular hump that sits far ahead of their shoulders
  • adapted to colder climates, including northern Alberta, Alaska, the Northwest Territories, and Yukon
A single bison with a bushy head of hair stands in a forested grassy area.
A Wood Bison at Rocky Mountain House National Historic Site. Photo: Scott Munn/Parks Canada

Bison are important for the health of natural ecosystems in which they normally occur. They also support many Indigenous cultural connections to the land and their ways of knowing.

Cultural connections with bison

Bison have always been important in the lives of many Indigenous peoples in what are now the Prairie Provinces, British Columbia, Northwest Territories, and other parts of Turtle Island. Many Indigenous communities have long held deeply cultural and spiritual connections with bison. They have relied on bison for:

  • food
  • shelter
  • clothing
  • tools
  • fuel
  • weapons
  • trade
  • social and ceremonial purposes
A vintage photo of a man sits cross legged against a pile of bison hide holding his rifle.
A Métis man known as Wigwam, photographed in 1858 at the Red River Settlement in Manitoba. He sits on bison hides. From the collection of Humphrey Lloyd Hime, MIKAN no. 3243328, Library and Archives Canada.
Three men are gathered in a bison compound. One holds a coffee, one is smiling, one has his head turned away.
Ervin Carlson, manager of the Blackfeet Nation bison program and president of the Intertribal Buffalo Council, speaking with other members of the Blackfoot Confederacy and Keith Aune of the Wildlife Conservation Society at Elk Island National Park. On this day in March of 2016, 87 calves were sent to Browning, Montana. Indigenous peoples have been involved in bison conservation continuously, from before Walking Coyote, to the Iinii Initiative, to the Buffalo Treaty – and beyond. Photo: Scott Mair/Parks Canada

Many Indigenous cultures continue to hold close relationships with their relatives—the bison. This includes for spirituality, food sovereignty, and social-economic development.

A bison stands on grasslands while two other bison stand in the background.
Plains Bison in Saskatchewan. Photo: Stefano Liccioli/Parks Canada

Parks Canada and bison

For over one hundred years, Canadian national parks have worked to maintain and restore bison herds for conservation. Parks Canada also works to uphold bison health and genetic diversity by maintaining disease-free conservation herds.

The size of the Parks Canada employee seems very small compared to the large face of a bison.
A Wood Bison at Elk Island National Park is undergoing a health check. Photo: Scott Mair.
A Parks Canada employee is taking a hair sample from a bison in a holding pen.
A Plains Bison at Grasslands National Park is getting hair sampled for genetic testing. Photo: Scott Mair
A group of bison stand in a wintery field near a wooden building. One bison is sticking out its tongue.
Plains Bison at Grasslands National Park.

Establishing bison herds would not have been possible without the stewardship of bison by Indigenous peoples. In the late 1800s, two Indigenous ranchers managed the Pablo-Allard herd. These animals were among the last wild Plains Bison. The Government of Canada bought 700 of their bison in the early 1900s. The bison were sent to Buffalo National Park and Elk Island National Park. Lessons were learned from the operation of Buffalo National Park. The bison at Elk Island have since become the main source of bison stock for reintroduction projects.

A historic photo of a rancher sitting on a white horse among a herd of fenced-in bison.
Michel Pablo, the Buffalo King. #ST001.045. Montana Historical Society Research Center Photograph Archives, Helena, MT.
A historic photo of a rancher sitting on a white horse among a herd of fenced-in bison.
Bringing in bison to load. #ST001.019. Montana Historical Society Research Center Photograph Archives, Helena, MT.

Today, Parks Canada manages bison across the country. These sites include:

Wood Buffalo National Park was established to protect the last remaining population of wild Wood Bison in North America.

A single bison with a bushy head of hair stands in a forested grassy area.
A Wood Bison at Wood Buffalo National Park. Photo: Charla Jones/Parks Canada

Bison transfers at Parks Canada

Parks Canada is helping to restore bison back onto the land through the transfer of bison. Bison transfers help to increase the number of conservation herds in Canada and beyond.

A group of people stand in front of a tall fence watching bison in a field, with a snow-capped mountain in the background.
Staff and VIPs watch as the bison are released from their shipping containers in the Windy Pasture of the Panther Valley in Banff National Park. Photo: Dan Rafla/Parks Canada

The Agency has transferred over 3400 Plains and Wood Bison to conservation sites and other interested groups. Over 600 of these bison were transferred to Indigenous communities to support them in establishing their own conservation or cultural herds.

“Sometimes groups know what they want, other times they’re asking for expertise. There’s a lot of collaboration with different groups—a lot of back and forth discussions on what they’re requesting, and what we have available.”

Ryan Hayes
Bison Program Coordinator for Grasslands National Park.

Photo: Stefano Liccioli/Parks Canada

Watch the types of bison that Parks Canada has transferred, and who has received them:

Transcript

Parks Canada Beaver Logo

A dark green map of Canada showing Parks Canada National Parks and Marine Conservation Areas appears, then quickly zooms in to focus on British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and the southern portions of Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut.

A timeline appears across the bottom, beginning at the year 1890 and ending at 2020+.

A legend in the top right corner identifies types of bison transfers. A solid green line represents Plains Bison, a dotted green line represents wood bison and an orange line in both solid and dotted form represent bison transfers to Indigenous communities (both Wood and Plains Bison).

Lines begin sprouting from Parks Canada places to other locations, representing bison transfers; some transfers land in other national parks, some land with conservation groups and some land with Indigenous communities.

The corresponding recipient of the bison transfers is shown scrolling along the top.

A “bison counter” at the bottom begins tallying the total number of bison transferred by Parks Canada to external groups.

The timeline moves slowly from left to right (the first transfer is sent from Banff National Park to former Buffalo National Park), revealing that the number of transfers is increasing each year over time.

Near the end of the animation, the “bison counter” reveals that the total number of bison transferred by Parks Canada to external groups is over 3000 between years 1909 and 2022 and will continue to increase.

Government of Canada logo

Parks Canada has made significant contributions to bison conservation and restoration in North America. Today, many bison herds exist across the landscape thanks to these transfers.

A family of bison with patchy fur and three golden brown calves stand in a dried grassy plain.
A family group of bison with four calves at Grasslands National Park. Photo: Stefano Liccioli/Parks Canada.

The historic return of bison

Bison had been absent from Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan for over 120 years. Parks Canada reintroduced Plains Bison back onto the landscape as a large grazing herbivore in 2005.

“Allowing bison to graze in the park complements other stewardship activities in the surrounding ranch lands. Grazing also provides habitats for a variety of wildlife.”

Ryan Hayes
Bison Program Coordinator for Grasslands National Park.

Photo: Stefano Liccioli/Parks Canada

Many adult bison and two calves stand and graze in vast green grasslands.
A herd of Plains Bison with calves grazing in the summer at Grasslands National Park.