After a 3½-year absence, plains bison have returned to roam Waterton Lakes National Park. Six bison — two males and four females — were relocated from Elk Island National Park to Waterton’s popular bison paddock on Feb. 19.
The original herd was evacuated from the paddock during the 2017 Kenow wildfire and relocated to Grasslands National Park, with the exception of one bull that survived the fire and was subsequently moved to a local First Nations herd.
The six bison currently in the park are just under one year old and will be able to naturally reproduce.
“Typically it takes a few years for them to start reproducing, so in a couple of springs from now we should expect to see baby bison calves on the ground and in the bison paddock, and that’s something to look forward to for sure,” says Kimberly Pearson, an ecosystem scientist with Parks Canada.
Many people have asked why it took so long to bring bison back to the park. Quite simply, it comes down to the impact the wildfire had on the vegetation and soil. It wasn’t until quite recently that it was determined the land could once again support a herd.
Kimberly and her team have been monitoring the range and assessing what amounts of forage are available for bison.
“When you look at the bison paddock, there’s a lot of vegetation present, but when you look closely there’s actually still a lot of bare soil if you part the plants,” she says. “It’s not fully back to what it was prior to the fire, but it’s a great time to add bison into the mix.”
Kimberly says the massive creatures are “ecosystem engineers” that have an incredibly positive ecological impact, extending to virtually all of the plants and animals in the areas where they live.
Two weeks ago, Kimberly was present for the release of the bison into the winter paddock.
“It was fantastic! It was a great day, a really happy day,” she says. “It was really great to see them back on the ground in Waterton. We’ve missed them being on the ground there for the last 3½ years.”
Also present for the release were a group of local First Nations members, who performed a ceremony prior to the arrival of the bison and blessed the animals and the land. Waterton worked closely with Dan Fox, a Kainai Nation member who was chosen to transport the six bison from Elk Island National Park to Waterton.
“We know that by bringing bison back, we’re not just rebuilding ecological connections, but we’re also helping to rebuild cultural connections [and] spiritual connections for local indigenous people, so it was really important to us to have some Blackfoot elders present,” says Kimberly.
The public will be able to see the bison come springtime, when the herd will be moved to the summer paddock.
Also noteworthy is the relocation of 40 plains bison from Elk Island National Park to Kainai Nation. According to Leroy Little Bear, special advisor to the president at the University of Lethbridge, the process went very smoothly.
“It was a wonderful scene to see those buffalo get off the trailer and run into the pens that we had set up for them, and to see them on the ground,” he says. “We’ve been talking about hoof to ground for the last few years, so to realize that was fantastic!”
Right now, these bison are part of what is referred to as a “slow release,” which means the pasture will slowly be enlarged over time. Eventually, the herd will have about 2½ sections of land to roam.
Mr. Little Bear likens the keystone species to Edmonton Oilers superstar Connor McDavid.
“He’s the superstar, and the team is built around the superstar,” he says. “The bison is kind of like the superstar when it comes to the environment. It brings about an ecological and biodiversity balance.”
He adds that while culturally his people used bison as sustenance, it wasn’t the only thing.
“We embodied each other. It was about our songs, for instance, our stories. Our ceremonies are so connected to that buffalo,” he says, and seeing bison reinforces the cultural aspect.
Speaking with Kainai elders, Mr. Little Bear was told that the youth hear the songs and stories, and participate in the ceremonies, but they don’t see the bison. By not seeing the animals, it was like there was something missing. Now, however, it looks like that will be changing.
Mr. Little Bear says Kainai Nation is open to taking in more bison from other places in an effort to expand the genetic pool. The current herd will be used for cultural and research purposes. Many educational programs revolving around the bison will also be introduced.
“It’s been such a wonderful experience, such a wonderful gift, to have our brother, the buffalo, come back,” says Mr. Little Bear. “It was a team effort with many, many people involved. I want to thank all those people that are involved.”
His list of those to thank includes Parks Canada, Waterton Lakes National Park, Elk Island National Park, Banff National Park and the various non-governmental organizations that worked together with Kainai to make the dreams of bison returning to the community come true.