Did you know that less than 200 years ago tens of millions of bison roamed Alberta? Sadly, European contact and senseless overhunting led to their near extinction.

By: Jane Marshall

Bison (commonly called Buffalo) were made for this land, and this land was made for them. It seems only right that it’s time for them to make a comeback, and Parks Canada is making that happen.

In 2018 16 bison were transported from their home at Elk Island National Park to Banff National Park for a pilot project to see if they could be reintroduced into the wild. The herd has now grown to 50. Let’s learn more from the Karsten Heuer, Bison Reintroduction Project Manager for Banff National Park.

Q & A with Karsten Heuer, Bison Reintroduction Project Manager, Banff National Park

Jane: Why was Panther Valley in Banff National Park chosen as the new home for the bison?

Karsten: A detailed habitat modelling exercise showed us this was some of the best bison habitat in the Park (See here for the study). We also wanted to start in an area with less human development and activity than what exists in the Bow Valley portion of Banff National Park.

Jane:  How were the bison transported from Elk Island National Park to Banff National Park?

Karsten: We transported them in groups of 3 and 4 in modified 10x10 shipping containers. The first 400km-long leg of the trip was on the back of small flatbed trucks to the end of the gravel road. The second was under a helicopter to the remote backcountry pasture that we had prepared for them and where we held them for the first 1.5 years to help anchor them to the new area. They gave birth to two crops of calves during this time.

Jane: What is their range and how far do they travel?

Karsten: We are trying to get them to develop a new home range in a 1200 km2 target reintroduction zone and so far so good. It is a pretty big area – about 10 times the size of all of Elk Island National Park where we translocated them from and 1/5 the size of all of Banff National Park.

Jane: Why did Parks Canada feel it was important to undertake this project?

Karsten: Our primary mandate is to maintain and restore ecological integrity, which really means ecosystem health. But its difficult to have a healthy ecosystem if something that was once here, Plains bison, is missing. So we worked to reintroduce it, along with all the ecological processes it performs like nutrient cycling (grazing and defecating), trampling bushes, rubbing against trees, rolling in the dirt, and being a significant food source for predators and scavengers.

Jane:  How heavy are adult bison?

Karsten: Females generally grow to around 500 kg and bulls can get as big as 1000 kg.

A slow, steady approach with dart gun at the ready. (K. Heuer/Parks Canada).
A slow, steady approach with dart gun at the ready. (K. Heuer/Parks Canada).

Jane: Other cool facts about bison that we might not know?

Karsten: The are incredibly well adapted for the cold. For example, they have one of the biggest tracheas (wind pipes) relative to their size for land mammals. This allows them to warm very cold air as they breathe it in and reduces the shock to the lungs.

Jane: How many bison were released in Banff, and how many are there now?

Karsten: 16 were released. Four calving seasons later, there are 50.

Jane: Overall, how do you feel the project is going?

Karsten: Excellent. They are amazingly adaptable animals. The long term question will be whether the area thats currently available to them will be enough.

Follow this story on the Banff Bison Blog.