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Reintroduced herd of plains bison in Banff thriving

Pilot project’s manager optimistic in update to council

SUNDRE - A herd of plains bison that was reintroduced to Banff National Park a few years ago as part of a five-year pilot project seems to be thriving.

Once a common sight and natural part of the ecosystem, the return of the majestic and symbolic animals after more than a century is being hailed by Parks Canada officials as a “historic, ecological and cultural triumph.”

Karsten Heuer, a biologist and bison reintroduction project manager, brought Sundre council up to speed during ta meeting last month.   

The herd was relocated from Elk Island National Park east of Edmonton into an enclosed pasture in the Panther Valley west of Sundre in 2017-18. The growing and healthy herd seems to be settling in quite comfortably after being released to roam freely in a remote portion of land on Banff’s eastern slopes that stretches out some 1,200 square kilometres.

“We’re about halfway along our five-year pilot study to reintroduce bison to Banff National Park,” said Heuer.

“There’s a lot of archeological evidence inside the park, and also outside, for the presence of bison, so we’re trying to bring something back,” he said.

Some people might wonder whether the effort is even worthwhile, but Parks Canada’s mandate is to maintain the health of the ecosystem. The intent is to not only reintroduce the species, but also the numerous spinoff benefits provided by the animals’ presence in the surrounding environment, he said.

Their ecological roles are numerous and important, he said, citing as an example depressions in the ground that form under their hooves and fill with water, providing riparian habitat for other species like amphibians.  

“Even their hair, which is extremely insulative, the birds that line their nests with that hair, their fledgling success is much higher than the ones that don’t,” he elaborated.

“There’s this whole cascade of effects.”

Parks Canada also takes cultural reconnection seriously, not only with First Nations and Indigenous people, but also with Canada’s own heritage as settlers in the West, he said.  

“It’s been more than any of our lifetimes since people and bison coexisted in this landscape.”

For that reason, he said the project was phased in over five years as a pilot with the possibility to reverse course at the end if necessary.  

The original enclosed pasture in the Panther Valley as well as the larger free-roaming zone on the remote eastern slopes of Banff were selected specifically to avoid higher-traffic tourist areas and transport corridors such as Banff itself or Bow Valley, he said.  

“We decided to start deep in the backcountry and see how it goes,” he said, adding, “We are actually gifted with quite a few buffers.”

Originally launching the project with 16 animals — 10 pregnant cows and six young bulls — he said the herd was successfully anchored to the reintroduction zone and adapted to new terrain features such as river crossings and steep slopes.

Helping to contain the animals in the zone were drift fences erected in pinch points where the bison could exit, although other wildlife are not hampered. The majority of the rest of the area features natural boundaries such as cliffs and ridges, he said.

Finally, before releasing the animals into the free-roaming zone, the bison were darted and fitted with radio collars to monitor their movements, he said, adding the project is now in its third and final phase.

Those efforts indicate the bison have for the most part not strayed far, largely staying in or near the free-roaming zone.

“In general, they’ve been using the Panther drainage and then the Red Deer drainage…it’s worked out quite well so far,” he said, adding that is indicative of successful strategies.  

“We have no fences in the high passes, but they’ve been spending a lot of their time in the high country in the summer, similar to how the elk spend their time.”

Meanwhile, during the winter months, the herd is more frequently found at lower elevations.

“The bison are really looking great, healthy, they’re adapting well. We haven’t fed them anything since we released them from that soft release pasture. So that’s just a testament of what robust, adaptable animals they are.”

As of last September, the herd had grown to more than 35. Depending on how successfully the bison breed over time in a natural setting with factors like wolf predation accounted for, estimates range anywhere from 275 to 600 by 2030.

“Eventually, and we probably want to start sooner rather than later if this all works out, is there’s going to be an opportunity for some sort of a harvest,” he said.

Accumulating data to study how the bison might impact other species like trophy sheep and elk remains ongoing, he said.  

“There’s not much to report at this stage.”

As an interesting side note from a biologist’s perspective, he said the bisons' grazing has exposed areas their ancestors once trod, in some cases even uncovering fragments of bones from long-since disappeared herds that are being analyzed and carbon dated.  

“It’s definitely been rewarding and neat to see these guys back in the landscape. They truly do fit into those places — they look like they belong.”

Although there are few people frequenting the area, officials ask anyone who encounters the animals to maintain a distance of at least 100 metres, he said, adding there have been no reports of aggressive encounters to date.

In concluding his presentation, he said the project is reversible, and that officials will in 2022 “hit the big pause button and evaluate based on everything we’ve learned and ask ourselves the question, along with stakeholders, is longer term bison restoration in this landscape feasible?”

If yes, management plans are outlined to move ahead with meeting population targets. If no, Parks Canada has committed to removing the animals and fences.

“Our definition of success in Parks Canada is obviously ecological restoration, (and) the cultural reconnection,” he said.

Furthermore, he called the opportunity to work on such a project rewarding during a time when the news cycle abounds with negative environmental headlines.

Mayor Terry Leslie expressed gratitude, and said he looks forward to another update in the future. Coun. Todd Dalke's motion to accept Heuer’s presentation for information was carried.