After over 140 years, wild bison are once again roaming the slopes and meadows of Banff National Park.
On July 29, Parks Canada staff released 31 of the hoofed mammals into the remote back country their long-gone ancestors once wandered freely for centuries.
It’s been a long journey for the pioneering plains bison herd. Until February 2017 all 16 adult members of the group were happily living life in Elk Island National Park. They were moved to their new mountain home as part of a five-year $6.4 million plan to bring bison back to Banff.
Bison were once abundant in North America, the continent at one time home to up to 30 million of the large animals.
"Historical accounts tell us that their hoofsteps shook the earth and that settlers would sometimes have to wait for days for a herd of bison to cross before they could continue their journey west,” said Banff park resource conservation manager Bill Hunt.
Bison nearly went extinct in the 1800s, mainly due to overhunting, disappearing from the Banff area completely. Parks Canada has been working for years to re-establish the park’s wild bison population. The Elk Island herd and their young are expected to become a key part of the ecosystem in their new habitat. Alpine birds make nests from their fur; the grazed fields bison leave behind make good habitat for elk. They'll also be a source of food for wolves and grizzly bears, predators that weren't part of life at Elk Island.
"Over time they will create a vibrant mosaic of habit that benefits bugs, birds, bears and hundreds of other species like they once did,” Hunt said.
The Elk Island bison spent a year and a half adjusting -- and having babies -- in a monitored 18-hectare pasture in Banff’s remote Panther Valley before staff decided they were ready to fend for themselves. The animals saw their first moving river, their first steep slopes and their first winter in the mountains.
"And they took it all in stride," Hunt said.
It was around midnight when the bison made their way out of their temporary pasture into the 1200 sq km reintroduction zone they now roam, an area 10 times the size of their territory at Elk Island.
“They just bolted through that release corridor in less than half an hour and then turned the corner to freedom into the big wild of Banff National Park. It was pretty awesome,” said bison project manager Karsten Heuer after returning from the release site.
Naturally mountainous terrain and about 5 km of adjustable fencing will make sure none of the herd go astray. The adult bison were outfitted with GPS radio collars to help staff keep track of what happens next. In 2022 Parks Canada will evaluate the project and try to determine whether the bison restoration will continue long-term.
Heuer, who played a major role in guiding the animals through their complex transition, said it was an emotional week.
"To work with these incredible animals -- they went through all this with an incredible amount of grace and patience with us. And now they're out there. And they're as graceful as ever. And they truly are teaching us."
The first bison young to be bred in Banff were born this summer. Photo courtesy Parks Canada.