CALGARY -- Talk about a comeback for the ages!

There are about 50 plains bison living in 1,200 square kilometre reintroduction zone in the remote eastern slopes of Banff - and growing.

In more than a 100 years bison have only been seen within the national park inside a fenced enclosure. The Banff Bison Project started about 25 years ago to reintroduce them so they would have free rein once again.

In 2017 Parks Canada received 16 plains bison from Elk Island National Park - six young males and 10 young females that were already pregnant. They were held in an enclosed pasture so they could bond to their new home.

Karsten Heuer is the reintroduction manager and heads a team of four Parks Canada staff who are monitoring the herd, giving him a closeup view over the past three seasons as it’s grown to 50 animals.

“It’s a tremendous privilege,” said Heuer. “I think it’s a wildlife biologist’s dream come true to work on behalf of all Canadians to bring back what is Canada’s largest mammal to Canada’s first national park.”

Heuer is impressed at how the bison have adapted to their new surroundings especially in 2018 when they were released into their new environment of the eastern slopes.

“The fact that they literally went up onto the ridges straight away when we released them just blew my mind,” said Heuer. “We thought that was an anomaly like they were confused or wanted to get a good look around but it’s turned out to be a repeating pattern every summer for the last three summers now.”

Capturing behaviour

Heuer and his team physically watch the bison but also use a number of wildlife cameras that are triggered by movement to learn more about them.

“It’s capturing their behaviour,” said Heuer. “Their associations, their relationships in a way with no human influence at all.”

The team is trying to answer a number of questions about the bison during this five year pilot project. They want to know how the animals are interacting with the environment and how other animals are reacting to them. They check water quality regularly to see if the bison are impacting the creeks and rivers.

“We’re collecting information,” said Heuer. “We’re collecting scat for instance to do some vegetation and diet analysis.”

This population of plains bison is only one of five in all of North America that are exposed to their natural predators like wolves and grizzly bears. In many cases Heuer and his team have watched them follow each other mostly out of curiosity. But at least one calf has died after a wolf attack. Researchers say it’s important that the bison continue to be shaped by those natural selective forces.

“Although it might be sad for individual animals that get injured or killed,” said Heuer. “As a species, as a population they’re going to be continuing to be shaped and as a result be healthier and more robust as a species into the future.”

Heuer says in 2022 Parks Canada will hit the ‘pause-button’ on the project and ask if bison reintroduction or restoration on this landscape in a broader sense is feasible based on what they’ve learned in this five year pilot.

Learn more about the Bison reintroduction project here: