Nearly wiped out in Al­berta in the 1800s, plains bi­son are mak­ing a his­toric re­turn to Banff Na­tional Park


SPRING IN THE RE­MOTE Pan­ther River val­ley in Al­berta’s Banff Na­tional Park sounds al­most ex­actly like you imag­ine it should. The air ex­plodes with bird­song. The river, fi­nally free of ice, roars along its course. Fat bum­ble­bees hum by like tiny zep­pelins, oc­ca­sion­ally col­lid­ing with scor­pi­onweed blos­soms. A cool wind rus­tles the trees. But this year, the sea­son has brought a sound not heard in the val­ley for more than a cen­tury, one that was once al­most en­tirely lost not just here but across the great plains of North Amer­ica. It is a low rum­bling that vi­brates in your ribs as much as it does your ears, and that in­ten­si­fies as you get closer to its source. It is the sound of fe­male plains bi­son com­mu­ni­cat­ing with their young.

The 10 calves, woolly and orange and pressed against their moth­ers’ sides, were born last April and May in an 18-hectare fenced pas­ture that Parks Canada built as part of its five-year, $6.4-mil­lion pi­lot project to rein­tro­duce plains bi­son to a 1,200-square-kilo­me­tre area on the east­ern slopes of the park. If the project works, the bi­son will even­tu­ally wan­der freely over a part of its his­toric north­ern range, some­thing that hasn’t hap­pened since the species was nearly driven to ex­tinc­tion by over­hunt­ing in the mid-to-late 1800s. Parks Canada hopes to re­store a his­tor­i­cally dom­i­nant her­bi­vore — and the largest land mam­mal in North Amer­ica — to a land­scape where it once played mul­ti­ple im­por­tant eco­log­i­cal roles, in­clud­ing main­tain­ing open mead­ows and grass­lands through in­tense graz­ing and cre­at­ing habi­tat for ev­ery­thing from elk to bad­gers to ground squir­rels. The bi­son’s re­turn is also a step for­ward in the ef­forts of some Indige­nous groups to re­con­nect with an an­i­mal that was cen­tral to their cul­ture for mil­len­nia. “What na­tional parks are try­ing to do is present to the Cana­dian pub­lic, and to the world, ex­am­ples of land­scapes, pro­cesses and ecosys­tems that were here when Euro­peans first ar­rived,” says Karsten Heuer, who is man­ag­ing the project for Parks Canada. Up un­til the late 1800s, an es­ti­mated 30 mil­lion to 60 mil­lion bi­son lived in North Amer­ica, in­clud­ing in the Banff re­gion, where a bi­son skull found buried be­neath the Banff town­site was dated at 4,000 years old. For the first year and a half of the project, the bi­son — the six bulls and 10 preg­nant fe­males who were brought to Banff from Al­berta’s Elk Is­land Na­tional Park last Fe­bru­ary, and now their calves — will be fed and pro­tected within the pas­ture, which will im­prove both their chances of sur­vival and their ties to their new home be­fore they’re re­leased as a free-roam­ing herd in the sum­mer of 2018. Heuer will over­see their jour­ney. He watched one of the preg­nant fe­males labour through a se­ries of spring snow squalls. She al­ter­nated be­tween stand­ing up, ly­ing down and writhing on her back in the snow, paw­ing at her belly un­til fi­nally her calf slid from her onto the ground. Within mo­ments an­other fe­male, a new mother her­self, came to help her lick the new­born clean. Soon, the calf strug­gled to its feet. “In the first 10 min­utes it was tak­ing its first steps,”

says Heuer. “You could al­most see the calf grow into its own skin — the skin of an an­i­mal de­signed to move.”

AL­THOUGH THERE ARE those who have ex­pressed con­cern about the bi­son mov­ing out of the park and onto pri­vate or provin­cially man­aged land once they are re­leased in 2018 (see “Bi­son be­yond Banff’s bound­aries” side­bar, page 37), many wel­come the idea of the an­i­mal re­turn­ing to the park to wan­der freely again. Leroy Lit­tle Bear is one of them. The Black­foot elder has been in­stru­men­tal in build­ing sup­port for a re­turn of wild plains bi­son to Al­berta, and was a key player in the cre­ation of the North­ern Tribes Buf­falo Treaty, an agree­ment that 10 First Na­tions from Al­berta, Bri­tish Columbia and Mon­tana signed in 2014 and that is in part aimed at restor­ing the bi­son to the North­ern Great Plains. “Our cul­ture is very closely tied to the buf­falo, both for sub­sis­tence and spir­i­tu­ally,” says Lit­tle Bear. “Some of our sacred so­ci­eties, such as the Buf­falo Women’s So­ci­ety and the Buf­falo Horn So­ci­ety, arise from and re­volve around our re­la­tion­ship with the buf­falo. So when the buf­falo were al­most ex­ter­mi­nated, we be­came a whole lot less Black­foot. The be­liefs and the sto­ries were still there, but the phys­i­cal as­pect was lost.” Since then, plains bi­son have been rein­tro­duced to Black­foot ter­ri­tory in Mon­tana and now Banff, and Lit­tle Bear be­lieves the cul­tural re­con­nec­tion has be­gun. “With this restora­tion,” he says, “the sto­ries are be­ing reaf­firmed.” The re­la­tion­ship be­tween groups such as the Black­foot and bi­son in Banff were lit­er­ally forged in fire. “The vast ma­jor­ity of fires that shaped this land­scape and the age struc­ture of the for­est is not due to light­ning — it’s due to Indige­nous Clock­wise from be­low: A Parks Canada em­ployee rides to see the bi­son in the Pan­ther River Val­ley; the new herd for­ages in its sum­mer pas­ture; bi­son calves ex­plore their new sur­round­ings.

burn­ing,” says Heuer. His­tor­i­cally, Indige­nous peo­ple ig­nited fires as they moved out of val­leys for the win­ter. The fires pro­moted growth come spring, draw­ing bi­son and other large mam­mals that lo­cal First Na­tions hunted. Parks Canada adopted this an­cient prac­tice in 2015, when it burned ap­prox­i­mately 865 hectares of meadow in the Pan­ther River Val­ley in prepa­ra­tion for the bi­son’s ar­rival. Over the next three years, an ad­di­tional 635 hectares of meadow will be burned in the val­ley, con­di­tions per­mit­ting. “We hope that what comes up next spring is a burst of suc­cu­lent growth that is full of nu­tri­ents,” says Heuer. “What we’re do­ing with meadow-burn­ing is ac­tu­ally mim­ick­ing an age-old hu­man re­la­tion­ship not just with bi­son, but with an en­tire land­scape.”

BE­FORE THE PIC­TURE-PER­FECT scene of plains bi­son roam­ing across a ver­dant ex­panse of meadow un­spools in re­al­ity, how­ever, there is poop to scoop. And fenc­ing to main­tain. And feed­ing sys­tems to fine-tune. And bi­son be­hav­iour man­age­ment to over­see. And the safety of staff to en­sure. There are, in fact, dozens of mov­ing parts that Heuer is re­spon­si­ble for, each of which can help de­ter­mine the project’s suc­cess or fail­ure. Re­mov­ing pat­ties from the pas­ture, for in­stance, helps re­duce par­a­sites in the bi­son pop­u­la­tion while they’re en­closed in such a small area. It’s not a quick or easy job; bi­son can defe­cate up to 12 times per day — no won­der dried pat­ties were such a plen­ti­ful fuel source for Indige­nous peo­ple and early Euro­pean set­tlers — and it takes many hours daily to shovel up the pie-sized mounds that dot the pas­ture.

An­other part of sup­port­ing the bi­son through this early rein­tro­duc­tion phase is feed­ing them, be­cause there isn’t enough to graze on in their cur­rent en­clo­sure. Heuer an­nounces the ar­rival of al­falfa cubes with bursts from a ref­eree whistle he keeps around his neck, cre­at­ing an as­so­ci­a­tion be­tween the sound and feed. This might prove use­ful later if the bi­son need to be lured from one place to an­other. The pay­off for all this labour is al­ready ap­par­ent, even though the bi­son have been here for less than four months. The great meadow mak­ers are, once again, re­defin­ing this land­scape, mow­ing the brush and young ev­er­greens in their pad­dock and main­tain­ing grass­lands that ben­e­fit myr­iad species. Their pres­ence means old re­la­tion­ships forged over thou­sands of years are pick­ing up where they left off. Ear­lier in the spring, ravens and mag­pies pulled shed­ding win­ter hair from the bisons’ shoulders to line their nests. Cow­birds, too, have found the bi­son and are al­ready rid­ing on their backs, feast­ing on the in­sects kicked up by their hooves. Over mil­len­nia, cow­birds evolved a clever strat­egy to keep pace with mi­grat­ing bi­son — they lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, which then raise the cow­bird chicks as their own. Even ground squir­rels are ben­e­fit­ting, the cropped grasses now too short to al­low coy­otes to sneak up. In re­turn, the ro­dents dig holes ev­ery­where, pro­vid­ing the loose, dusty earth bi­son love to roll in. As Heuer tosses an­other patty into a trailer with the words “The Honey Wagon” etched on its tail­gate, three bulls emerge from the dense shrubs. He slowly lets his shovel come to rest on the ground as they ap­proach, eye­ing the clos­ing dis­tance. Their loose-hang­ing tails sig­nal they are calm. Tail pos­ture is one of many vis­ual cues Heuer uses to read bi­son be­hav­iour. He and his team con­sulted ex­ten­sively with bi­son be­hav­iour ex­perts to un­der­stand how to man­age the bi­son with as lit­tle stress to the an­i­mals as pos­si­ble, and have adopted an an­i­mal-man­age­ment style called low-stress stock­man­ship. Whit Hib­bard, a Mon­tana cat­tle and sheep

‘Bi­son are wild an­i­mals, and in­cred­i­bly sen­si­tive to their sur­round­ings. Their in­stincts will kick in re­gard­less of what we’ve done with them.’

rancher who’s an ex­pert in low-stress stock­man­ship, trained Parks Canada staff in the tech­niques of the craft. Rather than us­ing fear and in­tim­i­da­tion to move the an­i­mals, he says, “We try to make our idea their idea. We po­si­tion our­selves prop­erly and use the nat­u­ral in­stincts of the an­i­mal to our ad­van­tage.” Hib­bard says the semi-ha­bit­u­a­tion to peo­ple is nec­es­sary for the wel­fare of the bi­son and peo­ple in­volved in the project. “But it won’t make the bi­son dull or less ob­ser­vant, like a bunch of dairy cows. Bi­son are wild an­i­mals, and in­cred­i­bly sen­si­tive to their sur­round­ings. Their in­stincts will kick in re­gard­less of what we’ve done with them.” Stock­man­ship and tools such as the as­so­ci­a­tion of feed­ing cubes with whistle blasts will be in­te­gral to the suc­cess of the next phase of the project, when the bi­son are re­leased into the 354-square-kilo­me­tre core of the rein­tro­duc­tion area af­ter calv­ing next year. By gen­tly guid­ing them to the new mead­ows burned the pre­vi­ous fall, “We can help them dis­cover their new range in a con­trolled fash­ion,” says Heuer. “Hope­fully over time that helps them an­chor and de­velop pat­terns, and then those pat­terns will end up be­ing passed down from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion.”

Karsten Heuer co­or­di­nates the ar­rival of the bi­son in the park ( left); a bi­son pre­pares to roll in a dusty wal­low ( bot­tom).

The bi­son cuts a fig­ure of dom­i­nance ( op­po­site) and leaves plenty of ma­nure for Parks Canada em­ploy­ees to shovel ( above).

A plains bi­son kicks up snow af­ter be­ing re­leased into Al­berta’s Banff Na­tional Park in Fe­bru­ary 2017. A Parks Canada pi­lot project has rein­tro­duced the an­i­mal.

The back­coun­try head­quar­ters of the park’s bi­son rein­tro­duc­tion project.

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