What does it mean to have bison back in Canada’s first national park after they were missing from the wild for over a century?

The arrival of 16 bison to the Panther Valley is an exciting conservation success-in-the-making for Banff and a new chapter in Parks Canada’s ongoing bison restoration story.

Archeological history

Bison skull on the ground.

This bison skull found near the town of Banff is over 6,000 years old! © Gwyn Langemann / Parks Canada

For thousands of years, bison roamed the valleys of what is now Banff National Park. They disappeared from this area around 140 years ago, but they left behind clues of their presence that we still find today.

Traditional knowledge, explorer accounts and archeological evidence tell us that bison travelled through this area.

Bison didn’t gather in the vast herds that were common on the plains, but even in low numbers, they helped shape the ecosystems that we enjoy today.

Ecological engineers

A bison stands in a green field.

© Stephen Edgerton / Parks Canada

A bison lifts its head from the grass. Spring has arrived – bringing fresh shoots. It lets out a snort and then rolls on the ground to scratch an itch, leaving behind a tuft of warm winter fur.An endangered Olive-sided flycatcher swoops over the small herd and spots the fur blowing in the wind. Perfect to keep its chicks cozy in its new nest.

Bison are ecosystem engineers. They shape the landscape in ways that help many other plants and animals, ranging from bugs to birds to bears. Shedding their winter fur that is used by birds to line their nests is one example of the many ways bison impact the ecosystem.

Other examples of bison as ecosystem engineers include:

  • Grazing and wallowing creates habitat for a range of animals including elk, ground squirrels and badgers.
  • As North America’s largest land mammal, bison provide a rich source of nutrients for scavengers, bears and wolves.
Cultural importance

Bison are also vital to the history and culture of many indigenous peoples.

For thousands of years, many indigenous nations traveled through what is now Banff National Park, hunting bison and burning forests and meadows to improve habitat quality for bison and other animals.

For indigenous peoples, bison traditionally provided a range of life-sustaining resources including:

  • food – especially in the form of pemmican;
  • hides for tipi walls;
  • bones and sinew for tools and
  • leather for clothing such as moccasins.

Aboriginal elder holds drum at the corner of a bison paddock.

In January 2017, Parks Canada hosted a blessing ceremony at Elk Island National Park indigenous nations in Treaty 6 and 7 and the Metis of Alberta to give bison a proper spiritual send-off before their journey to Banff. © Johane Janelle / Parks Canada

To honour the connection between indigenous cultures and bison, Parks Canada is committed to welcoming indigenous peoples to reconnect with bison. This may include sharing traditional knowledge, participating in ceremonies or getting involved in on-the-ground activities.

Disappearance

The plains of North America were once rich with the sounds of snorts, rumbles and pounding hoofsteps of vast herds of bison.

Their herds once numbered as big as 30 million, but bison nearly became extinct within a single human lifetime. Many factors led to their near-disappearance, but over-hunting was the main cause that left less than 1,000 surviving bison.

An aged photograph depicts a man in a top hat standing on top of a mound of bison skulls.

By the 1850s, bison had also vanished from the Banff area – leaving a hole in both the ecosystem and in the human communities that depended on them.

Luckily, bison were given a second chance – thanks in large part to the leadership of Parks Canada.

Conservation legacy

For over a century, Parks Canada has been an international leader in bison conservation – helping bring bison back from the brink of extinction.

In the early 1900s, 700 plains bison from the last wild herds were bought by the Government of Canada from a rancher in Montana. The bison were shipped north to Elk Island and Buffalo national parks.

Buffalo National Park (near Wainwright, Alberta) closed thirty years later due to disease, overgrazing, and lack of funding, but the bison in Elk Island National Park thrived. They are now the primary seed stock for reintroduction projects around the world, including Montana, Russia, Alaska, and Grasslands National Park.


© Scott Munn / Parks Canada

Parks Canada also manages wild, free-roaming bison in Prince Albert National Park and Wood Buffalo National Park and protects several display herds across the country.

The paddock

Je flotte à droite | Floating right
© Parks Canada / Bill Gibbons

Do you remember visiting Banff National Park and taking a drive through the bison paddock? Windows down, you smelled an earthy scent in the air when bison wallowed in the dust. If you listened carefully, you could heard their grunts as they grazed under the aspen trees.

Bison conservation in Canada started here in Banff in 1897 when a handful of the few remaining wild bison left in North America protected as a display herd in the bison paddock.

The paddock was an attraction for visitors to the park and now a fond memory for many who had a chance to experience it.

The enclosure and the bison were removed in 1997 to reconnect the flow of wildlife movement around the Town of Banff.

Once the bison were gone, a conversation started to bring bison back to Banff…but this time as wild animals rather than as a display herd in a fenced paddock.

New beginnings

In 2017, Parks Canada made history by reintroducing a small herd of plains bison from Elk Island National Park to Banff National Park’s eastern slopes, a remote wilderness area that provides the wide, grassy valleys that bison need to thrive.

A herd of bison running in snow.
© Dan Rafla / Parks Canada

The reintroduction of bison to Banff brings back a keystone species to:

  • support ecological integrity;
  • contribute to bison conservation since plains bison are only protected in three herds in less than 0.5% of their original range in Canada;
  • reconnect indigenous peoples and bison; and
  • create new opportunities for visitors and Canadians to learn about the ecological and cultural importance of bison.

Watch the historic return of bison to Banff to experience their homecoming to Canada’s first national park.


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