A herd of wild bison has been reintroduced to Banff National Park in Alberta Canada.
This is the first time bison have roamed the countryside since their near extinction in the 19th century.
Overhunting brought a population of over 30 million bison in Canada to the brink of extinction.
In order to save the species, the Canadian government purchased one of the last surviving herds in the early 1900s. This herd was kept in a protected paddock at the base of Cascade Mountain for almost a century before being released in 1997 to begin their reintroduction to the wild.
The relocation of these bison has been in the works since 2010 when the Canada parks agency gave themselves seven years to determine how to safely move and manage the bison upon their introduction to the park.
This is a move that Shelli Dubay, professor of wildlife ecology, said makes all the difference for the success of this herd.
Dubay, who is also a member of the Wildlife Disease Association said when she thinks of bison she immediately thinks of tuberculosis and brucellosis.
Bison infected with these diseases have the potential to contact and contaminate herds of cattle.
Dubay said that in Montana and other western states, cattle that are infected with brucellosis are not able to be traded with other states where cattle have not been infected. This gives unaffected states more freedom of mobility with their cattle and is creating political tension among ranchers whose cattle cannot be moved through no fault of their own.
To avoid this political conflict, the bison currently in Banff came from Elk Island National Park, which has been tuberculosis and brucellosis free for more than forty years.
In anticipation of diseased bison being introduced to the landscape, Parks Canada, the agency responsible for the introduction of bison, developed a pre-emptive Bison Health Monitoring and Disease Response Plan in addition to precautions that they have already taken.
The progressive plan includes an initial “soft release” where the bison are quarantined and monitored for 16 to 18 months and intense testing and monitoring of the bison for diseases.
“From what I have learned I feel like the project has been very well planned, well thought out, ” Dubay said.
Parks Canada has also anticipated the potential environmental effects of the bison in a detailed impact analysis and will continue to monitor the impacts and interactions of the bison throughout the life of the project.
The bison are giant ruminants who will graze and clear off some of the coarser vegetation allowing room for more nutritious vegetation to grow below it.
Parks Canada relocated the herd of 16 bison containing mostly pregnant females to the remote Panther Valley in Banff National Park.
The herd will live in an enclosed pasture under the supervision of Parks Canada officials until summer 2018 where they will be set free to roam across more than 460 square miles around Red Deer and Cascade river valleys.
“It’s great to have a keystone species return to one of our nation’s most iconic places. I’m proud to say that history has come full circle and wild bison are once again in Banff National Park,” said Dave McDonough, Banff National Park Superintendent.
If the herd thrives, they will be just one of the four herds in North America that are roaming in the wild.
Olivia De Valk