Panther River Valley
Credit: Parks Canada

Parks Canada will re-introduce 30 to 50 plains bison to Banff National Park within the next five years.

Blake Richards, Member of Parliament for Wild Rose, on behalf of the Honourable Leona Aglukkaq, Minister of the Environment and Minister responsible for Parks Canada, announced on March 6, 2015, an initiative that would see the return of plains bison to Banff National Park. This investment is designed to support Canada’s National Conservation Plan (NCP).

“Our Government is taking action to protect our rich natural heritage for all Canadians now and in the future. Successfully restoring this keystone species in Banff will allow visitors, neighbours and the public at large to experience an authentic national park experience," said MP Richards, in a statement to press.

This project will reintroduce a small herd of plains bison in Banff National Park. A keystone species that has been absent from the park since its establishment, plains bison once played a key role in the park's montane ecosystem.

According to a release from the Bison Belong campaign, the last wild bison was seen in the area that is now Banff National Park during the 1870s, before the park was established in 1885. Bison bones are often found when excavations are done for buildings or roads in Banff. 

From 1898 to 1997, some of the remaining few wild bison and their descendants were sent to live in a paddock in Banff National Park as part of an effort to bring the species back to viable numbers through captive breeding. In 1997 the paddock was removed for sound ecological reasons. 

“This announcement, with money to back it up, rights a historical wrong by taking concrete action to bring wild bison back to Banff National Park where they belong” says Bill Luxton, chairman of the Banff-based Eleanor Luxton Foundation dedicated to the history, ecology and culture of the Bow Valley, and which has coordinated the Bison Belong campaign. "We are thrilled."

This new, five-year initiative is set to have three stages — planning and prep (including the deployment of fencing in the Panther-Dormer River area) in years one and two, followed by the transplant of bison from Elk Island National Park to the fenced area in year three. Provided all is well, bison will then be released into the park's eastern slopes in year four and monitored onward. Prescribed fire will also be applied on a small scale (approximately 1,000 hectares per year) to help maintain and improve habitat quality for bison within the core area.

Through this project, Parks Canada aims to provide Canadians with an opportunity to connect with this iconic species. In addition, Parks Canada will invite First Nations to share traditional knowledge of plains bison, and participate in stewardship, management and celebrations and will engage students and volunteers to participate in bison research, monitoring and stewardship activities.