It may come as a surprise to travellers on the Yellowhead Highway to find one of Canada's national parks bisected by a major highway and located just 45 kilometres from the capital city of a province. A National Park in the middle of Alberta? Aren't national parks supposed to be located in remote scenic areas-areas with mountains, pristine lakes, panoramic views...?
Elk Island National Park is situated in the Beaver Hills – an area, as the name suggests, abundant in beaver at the turn of the 19th century. What made the Beaver Hills unique was the aspen thickets which surrounded the prairie and provided forage and protection for the wintering herds of bison and year-round population of elk, moose, and deer. And there was plenty of water.
The Beaver Hills became an important centre for much of the commercial hunting, which supplied the fur trade. Beaver were virtually eliminated from the Beaver Hills by the 1830s. As late as 1841 bison were still being obtained in large numbers from the Beaver Hills. But they were quickly being depleted. By the late 1860s, the numbers of large ungulates were depleted to the point where the bison were almost eliminated and other large herbivores were very scarce.
Most of the lands in the Beaver Hills remained untouched from the 1870s through the homestead period. The remaining forest resources were viewed by some as a valuable timber resource; by others as a hindrance to settlement. In 1895 fire devastated the area. This prompted the federal government to protect the forest and in 1899 the area was officially designated as 'The Cooking Lake Forest Reserve.'
Although the forest was protected, the elk and mule deer were not. Sport hunting and hunting for meat by the settlers posed a threat to wildlife populations. Those elk which were present in the Beaver Hills were considered one of the last herds in Canada.
In 1906, five Albertans from the Fort Saskatchewan area persuaded the federal government to create a wildlife sanctuary for the elk of the Beaver Hills. The government responded with the new Dominion Forest Reserve Act which established 'Elk Park' July of 1906. A 2.2 metre fence was constructed around the area, which included the area around present day Astotin Lake.
With elk, mule deer, and moose enclosed within its fenced boundaries, Elk Park became the first federally controlled area in Canada to be enclosed as a big game sanctuary. This marked a new era in conservation in Canada. Dominion Parks, at this time were recognized informally a 'wildlife parks' and 'scenic parks'. Elk Island Park, as it was called in 1908, was wildlife park until it became formally designated as a Dominion Park in March 1913. The National Parks Act, when passed by the Canadian Parliament in 1930, established Elk Island as a national park. National parks were established, during this time, to provide sanctuary for wildlife – sanctuary from uncontrolled hunting, trapping and loss of habitat. The act dedicated National Parks to both 'preservation' and 'use' by the people of Canada. Protection thus established, tourism followed.
Certainly no one realized what a treasured resource this sanctuary would become.
When Elk Park was established in 1906, it consisted of a 42 square kilometre area surrounding the lake locally known as Island Lake (now known as Astotin Lake). The lake is dotted with small islands-Lamont, Archer, and Elk Island to name a few. As the name suggests, Lamont Island was named after the local community, Archer Island bears the name of a prominent local physician, and Elk Island was named for the elk, which swam out to the island to calve.
In 1913, the name Elk Island Park was selected. The Park did have two outstanding features-elk and Island Lake with its sandy beaches and islands. Today, the significance of the name distinguishes the fact that the National Park is an island in many ways – an island of protection for the heritage resources within its boundaries and an island refuge for people seeking to escape from the urban hustle and bustle. Elk Island National Park is recognized as 'an island of nature surrounded by a landscape of man.'
The chronology of Elk Island National Park
1906 : Elk Park, 42 square km (16 sq. mi.) established with herd of 24 elk, 2-3 moose, and 35 mule deer. Foundation of today's main park population.
1907 : Plains bison from Pablo-Allard herd of Montana arrive in Lamont. 400 animals in Elk Park awaiting the completion of fencing at Wainwright's Buffalo National Park.
1908: Elk Park becomes known as Elk Island Park.
1909 : Fenced completed in Buffalo National Park. 325 plains bison shipped. 50 to 70 animals evaded capture.
1913: Elk Island Park designated as a Dominion Park.
1922 : Area south to current day Highway 16 (Yellowhead Highway) added to reduce impact of overgrazing.
1930: Elk Island re-designated as a national park-National Parks Act , 1930.
1942: Re-introduction of beaver. Rapid population growth.
1947: Elk Island National Park expanded to include 60 sq km south of Highway 16 (Yellowhead Highway)-today known as the Wood Bison Area.
1965 : 23 wood bison from Nyarling River Area, Wood Buffalo National Park, introduced to the 60 square km area south of Highway 16.
1987 : Transplant program for the endangered trumpeter swans begins in Elk Island National Park.
1988 : Wood bison down-listed from 'rare' to 'threatened' species.