- For thousands of years, vast herds of Plains bison roamed the Great Plains of North America. Although wild, free-roaming bison were absent from the landscape for more than a century, bison were historically the dominant grazers on the Prairies.
- Bison were central to the culture and economies of the Indigenous peoples of the Northern Great Plains. The bison continues to hold great cultural and spiritual significance for First Nations and Métis people in what is now Saskatchewan.
Parks Canada’s Bison Story
- Parks Canada’s leadership in bison conservation started in 1897 when Banff National Park (then Rocky Mountains Park) protected some of the few remaining wild bison left in North America as a display herd (the enclosure and the bison were removed in 1997 to facilitate wildlife movement around the Town of Banff).
- In 1907, approximately 700 Plains bison from the last wild herds were bought by the Government of Canada and were shipped to Elk Island National Park. A total of 71 plains bison from Elk Island were transferred to Grasslands National Park in 2005.
- Grasslands is Canada’s only national park protecting the Prairie Grasslands ecosystem, and the return of the bison to this ecosystem was an historic moment. The Grasslands herd has since thrived on the mixed-grass prairie, and is a healthy, genetically-diverse conservation herd.
- On July 29th, 2018, Parks Canada released 31 wild plains bison, also originating from 16 Elk Island National Park bison, into the backcountry of Banff National Park into a 1,200 km2 reintroduction zone as part of a pilot project to explore the long-term feasibility of restoring North America’s largest land mammal to Canada’s first national park. Since then, the herd has been thriving in its new habitat.
- Parks Canada manages bison at national parks and sites across the country, including Elk Island, Prince Albert, Wood Buffalo, Riding Mountain, Grasslands, Banff and Waterton Lakes national parks, as well as at Rocky Mountain House National Historic Site.
- Parks Canada’s disease-free, cattle gene-free, and genetically-diverse Plains bison continue to contribute to populations as a primary source of animals for reintroduction projects all across North America and the world.
Bison Translocation Summary
- In late November 2019, Parks Canada selected six healthy bison (female yearlings) for transfer from Grasslands National Park to Wanuskewin. As part of the bison handling procedures, the bison underwent health testing to ensure they were free of diseases of concern (e.g. bovine tuberculosis and brucellosis).
- In December 2019, the animals were transported by a suitable livestock trailer more than 400 km from Grasslands to Wanuskewin and released into the bison enclosure at Wanuskewin.
Why does Parks Canada transfer bison from Grasslands National Park to other organizations?
- Grasslands National Park provides ideal habitat for Plains bison, and the herd at Grasslands has grown consistently since their reintroduction in late 2005.
- In the absence of large predators, the herd size must be managed to protect the health of the animals and to prevent overgrazing. Bison health, genetic variation, space use, grazing pressure and the health of the native prairie are monitored, and every two years a number of bison to be removed from the herd are identified. Animals are carefully selected to maintain age and sex ratios, to maintain herd social structure and to emulate natural mortality patterns.
- Parks Canada is committed to providing healthy, genetically-pure bison to other organizations contributing to the wider conservation of bison. Parks Canada also recognizes the role of Indigenous peoples in conserving, restoring, and presenting natural and cultural heritage. When surplus bison are removed from the herd in Grasslands National Park, they are made available to conservation programs, Indigenous groups, research institutions, zoos and display herds.
Why is the restoration of bison important?
Parks Canada supports the restoration of bison for the following reasons:
- Ecological Restoration
As “ecosystem engineers,” bison influence the landscape in ways that benefit many plant and animal communities.
- Cultural Reconnection
Bison are an icon of Canada’s history. They were an integral part of the lives of Indigenous peoples and Canada’s pioneers, and they still have an important role in many Indigenous cultures. Restoring bison to the landscape is an opportunity to renew cultural and historical connections.
- Inspiring Discovery
Successfully reintroducing bison will create new opportunities for visitors, neighbours and the public at large to learn about the ecological and cultural importance of bison.
- Alignment with Parks Canada Mandate
Parks Canada manages some of the finest and most extensive systems of protected natural and cultural heritage areas in the world. In managing national parks, Parks Canada maintains or restores ecological integrity and provides Canadians with opportunities to discover and enjoy these places. Integral to this work is restoring the full suite of native species to the lands and waters that make up the national park system. This helps ensure that these places will be here for present and future generations to appreciate and experience.