© Stephen Edgerton / Parks Canada
Our collection of visuals takes you behind-the-scenes to Banff’s bison country. Experience life in the field as we bring you video footage, photo galleries and interactive maps from key moments in the reintroduction journey.
Wild bison return to Banff
My name is Karsten Heuer and I am the bison reintroduction project manager for Banff National Park.
My job is to orchestrate all the moving parts of trying to get bison from Elk Island National Park into Banff National Park.
Parks Canada's primary mandate is to ensure what we call ecological integrity, which means the health of the ecosystem.
And because something has been missing, North America's largest land mammal, part of our job is to try to bring it back.
And that’s what this is all about. It's about that effort.
From about noon today until about hopefully about noon tomorrow, so a 24 hour period
we are actually going to be doing an operation that has a lot different moving parts.
The first part is bringing the animals through the Elk Island corral system and chute system
give them a tranquilizer, and then do some last minute changes to ear tagging.
And then we will start to load them in groups of three and four through the chute system
up the loading ramp, into the containers that we've modified
They're basically seacans or shipping containers with ventilation in them and a few additions to the doors.
And then, we'll truck them for 400 km. That will then take us to the end of the gravel road, Ya Ha Tinda Ranch.
And then we will actually bring in a helicopter in tomorrow, a heavy lift helicopter
that's coming from the coast and that will pluck each individual crate off the flat-bed trucks.
One by one, over the ridge, about 20 km into the heart of the reintroduction zone.
Where we have a pasture fenced.
Where we are going to hold them for the next 16 months, feed them, support them
allow them to calve safely twice, and then do the release after they have anchored to that landscape.
And have adopted it as their new home.
There's been so much research, there's been so much consultation, like literally years.
We've got everything in place that we could have possibly thought of.
And really, from here on in, it's going to be up to the animals.
You know, we are talking about giving a species a second chance.
The seed that we are planting today, you can't almost imagine what it might lead to in 50 or 100 years.
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Bison Reintroduction - Soft release pasture build in Banff National Park
All right. So we’re, we’re coming in to the site here.
And we’ve chosen this site because it’s in the heart of some of the best bison habitat that the park has to offer.
We’re sitting here at Ground Zero for the bison project.
This is where the hooves are first going to hit the ground for the bison
that we aim to translocate from Elk Island National Park into the heart of the Panther River Valley in Banff National Park.
We’re now in Week Two of what we expect to be a month-long building of a soft release pasture system.
Everything is challenging here. It’s not just coming in, check out the beautiful nature
, it’s—it’s a physically demanding job.
I feel in better shape than when I started.
It’s been logistically complex because of the remoteness.
This is about 40 kilometers from any road.
This pasture system that we’re building consists of two pastures.
The primary pasture where the animals will be first arriving.
We’re employing an eight-foot-high mesh fence.
And it’s where the animals will winter.
And it’s also where they’ll calve.
We’re actually going to hold them and support them and then gradually get them used to going out onto the natural landscape.
The other pasture that we’re building.,— that’s about twice as big as this one, so it’s about 12 hectares instead of six.
And that is actually meant to be the place where they’ll summer and spend the fall.
And then finally after 16 months we’ll actually open the gates and they’ll become free roaming.
There’s lots to work through still at the field level.
You really would like to start to see some tangible results.
And then once you’re out in the field, you really do start to see the vision come together in this really incredible place.
Yeah. You can’t help but be happy when you’re out here.
I know I’m not getting paid for this project but to me, the payment is just being allowed to be here.
And being a part of it. It’s wonderful.
I wanted to be a part of this as it might be, in the big picture, when all this is down the road 40, 50 years
I have three boys at home that could look back and say, hey, that was my dad.
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Canada’s Bison: Restoring a Legacy
The sound of galloping bison was once like thunder
in the distance on the North American plains.
For thousands of years the bison roamed the ranges
from Alaska and Canada's Prairie provinces
to the grasslands of northern Mexico.
Bison, sometimes known as Buffalo,
are North America's largest land mammal.
A bison bull can weigh over 900 kilograms,
measure close to 4 metres in length,
jump almost 2 metres high,
and run over 40 kilometres per hour.
Canada is home to two types - the plains bison
and its lesser-known and larger cousin, the wood bison.
Bison are an iconic species -
historically, culturally, and ecologically.
Free-ranging bison were a driving force
in the continent's grassland ecosystems -
creating a mosaic of habitats
and a food source for predators and scavengers.
For North America's indigenous peoples,
who had lived with the bison for thousands of years,
this animal was fundamental to their physical,
spiritual, and cultural lives.
Leroy Littlebear, an Elder with the Blood Tribe of Alberta,
once said that despite the decline in numbers,
the spirit of the Buffalo never left their lands
and the transfer of animals from Elk Island
back to the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana
was the realization of a dream.
He said, "It is a good day for the Buffalo;
it is a good day for us,
and it is a good day for Blackfoot Territory."
Parks Canada recognizes that strong relationships
and reconciliation with Indigenous partners
are essential to Parks Canada's mandate
and it is facilitating reconciliation by helping
to reconnect Indigenous people with the bison.
Parks Canada works with over 300 indigenous communities
across the country.
The reason it's so important is that they have
thousands of years of stewardship on these lands
and Parks Canada is only a hundred years old!
So being able to work with people who have
that kind of knowledge is extremely important for us.
The science-based approach is also extremely important.
So when you look at both of them together,
you can come to a good way of managing an area.
In the early 1800s,
herds of up to 100,000 plains bison were not uncommon
and a staggering 30 million dominated the land.
Despite these vast numbers,
their population came perilously close to extinction,
numbering less than 1,000 by the end of the century.
This dramatic decline was the result of many causes
including market hunting, loss of habitat,
and unenforced early conservation measures.
With bison on the brink of extinction,
the Canadian government recognized the need to restore
these animals and bought one of the last remaining herds
from several Indigenous ranchers in Montana.
During transportation a small herd was left
at Elk Island National Park, where they thrived.
Elk Island has a long history as the epicentre
of world bison conservation, providing seed stock
for new herds and an emerging bison ranching industry.
Over 1,800 genetically pure and disease-free Plains bison
have been relocated across North America,
including many to other national parks where they flourish today.
Parks Canada's journey to help restore Plains bison
has had its challenges along the way
from which many lessons have been learned.
Through these types of recovery efforts,
Parks Canada is viewed as an international leader
in nature conservation.
the International Union for the Conservation of Nature
adopted Parks Canada's guidelines
for ecological restoration as their global standard.
We employ what we call the "three E's approach" -
Effective, Efficient and Engaging.
It's effective in terms of using the best available scientific
and traditional knowledge in determining overall goals.
It's efficient to ensure that we maximize the outcomes
by using resources wisely.
And perhaps even most importantly, it's engaging.
We need to engage the local community, our partners -
such as our First Nations partners,
in the ecological restoration process.
Engaging Canadians in authentic national park experiences
is a cornerstone of Parks Canada's mandate
and bison are one emblem of that experience.
Plans are underway to re-introduce plains bison
in Banff National Park in 2017,
contributing both to the breadth of Banff's visitor experience
and the ecological integrity of the park.
Parks Canada, by developing internationally recognized
principles and guidelines, as well as best practices
for species recovery, will certainly be able to contribute
to the global effort that other countries can adopt
or adapt in their own programs, in terms of species recovery.
Parks Canada's efforts are a model for the world -
providing conservation leadership, collaborating
and reconciling with Indigenous partners,
and presenting Canadians with opportunities to engage
with our natural and cultural treasures.
While bison conservation work is on-going,
Canadians can be proud of what we have already achieved.
This story is an extraordinary example of how National Parks
have played an important role in bringing back a species
from the edge of extinction to become an important legacy
for generations to come.
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