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Banff bison pilot program takes off as population swells

A little bison calf takes its first steps as its mother looks on in Banff National Park in this undated handout photo. Three bison babies have been born in the backcountry of Banff National Park, the first "made-in-Banff" calves in more than 140 years. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Peter White, Parks Canada) A little bison calf takes its first steps as its mother looks on in Banff National Park in this undated handout photo. Three bison babies have been born in the backcountry of Banff National Park, the first "made-in-Banff" calves in more than 140 years. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Peter White, Parks Canada)

Parks Canada says a campaign to re-introduce bison into Banff National Park is paying off as the original population of 16 animals has grown to approximately 80.

The data, collected over the first five years of Parks Canada's Plains Bison Reintroduction Pilot, monitored the lives of a small group of animals that were released into an enclosed pasture in 2017.

Officials say the herd was released to explore the full reintroduction zone the following year and that's where the animals have been living ever since.

"Mountain ridges and short stretches of wildlife-friendly fencing discouraged bison from leaving the 1,200 square-kilometre reintroduction zone while allowing other wildlife to pass freely," Parks Canada said in its report.

The herd has enjoyed a good life in the area, with a mortality of only two calves during the five-year period. Four males left the zone or the park boundary, venturing into farmer's fields, but Parks Canada took action on those occasions.

"Three of these ventured onto livestock grazing allotments in the summers of 2018 and 2019 but did not mingle with cattle or damage any fences. Allotment holders were contacted immediately and Parks Canada successfully recaptured or removed the bison within days," the report read.

The bison also made good neighbours, officials said, as there were "no negative impacts to other species" and no reports of threats to human safety or property damage.

The home range of the bison was fairly remote but Parks Canada says there were a few backcountry users who were able to watch the animals in the wilderness.

"(While) those were mostly guides with clients, the existence of bison in the backcountry, did not appear to increase visitation to this part of the backcountry."


Officials say there was a great deal of communication with the public about the initial reintroduction initiative, which reached approximately 14,000 people.

Parks Canada says the entire campaign's reach has been much wider – making contact with almost 120 million people.

"This included 13 webisodes (e.g. Free and Thriving), digital storytelling (Bison Blog and associated social media posts), and over a dozen articles, and television and radio interviews in traditional media, all of which were received enthusiastically by the public," Parks Canada said.

"Collectively, an estimated 119.5 million people were reached with the Banff bison story since the project began in 2017. This indicates a strong public awareness and appreciation of the bison pilot project amongst Canadians."

Banff baby bison

There were also no complaints about bison within the park, the agency said.

"Bison generally fled (up to five kilometres) from occasional hiking groups and neither fled nor approached groups on horseback," Parks Canada said. "Outside the park, a lone bull did venture into horse camps, which caused concerns among campers. It was euthanized as it continued to wander east, as per the Bison Excursion Response Plan."


Parks Canada says with the data that's been collected, it's fairly clear that herds will grow larger in the coming years.

"The majority of the animals, which number approximately 80 as of fall 2022, have remained in the reintroduction zone and within 30 kilometres from where they were released," Parks Canada said.

Population growth of the herd is an average 33 per cent per year, the agency says, but those are expected to moderate as young and founding animals age.

According to data, the average growth rate of North American wild herds of bison is 20 per cent.

"This kind of growth is encouraging for species recovery where hundreds or thousands of animals are needed to insulate against genetic drift, extreme weather, and other forces of extinction," Parks Canada said.

However, the population could end up being limited by the same factors as every free-roaming plains bison herd on the continent.

"They will ultimately be limited by outlying agriculture, other human developments and active management," it said.

The health of the animals has also been "good" to "very good," according to the data from the report.

"Fecal parasite counts were low, calving rates were very high (average 33 per cent herd growth rate per year) and, despite intensive monitoring and frequent field and remote camera observations (radio collars maintained on at least 10 per cent of the herd), no sick animals were detected and only two natural bison mortalities were recorded in the five-year pilot (due to wolf predation of newborns in spring 2020 and 2021)."

Parks Canada says it will now begin a phase of public engagement to determine "the long-term feasibility of the bison program" within the park.

"It is anticipated that in addition to this report, engagement on the report will set the stage for bison management over the next 10 years and beyond, informed by Indigenous, stakeholder, and public input, and ongoing monitoring and research," it said.

Full details of the Parks Canada report can be found online. Top Stories

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