Years of planning and hard work has now paid off for Parks Canada staff in charge of a monumental project to return a vital species to the ecosystem of Banff National Park that has been absent for over 100 years.

On Thursday, officials say that an enclosed pasture in the backcountry containing the park’s wild plains bison herd was opened, allowing the 31 bison to roam freely out into the park.

The group is comprised of 16 bison that were translocated from Elk Island National Park in February 2017 as well as two generations of calves born in Banff.

Parks Canada says the $6.4M plan to set up a new herd of plains bison in Banff will help conservation efforts and foster cultural connections for all park visitors.

“This is a historic moment. Not only are bison a keystone species and an icon of Canada’s history, they are an integral part of local Indigenous culture. By returning plains bison to Banff National Park, Parks Canada is taking an important step towards restoring the full diversity of species and natural processes to the park’s ecosystems while also providing new opportunities for Canadians and visitors to connect with the story of this iconic species,” said Catherine McKenna, Canada’s Minister of Environment and Climate Change in a release.

Now, Parks Canada will be monitoring the population in the 1,200 square kilometre reintroduction zone in the remote eastern slopes of the park for the next three years.

Once that period has elapsed, officials will then evaluate the success of the re-introduction and make a determination on whether or not bison restoration can be feasible in the park.

Bison herds once numbered as many as 30 million in North America but became nearly extinct after over-hunting left only about 1,000 of the animals on the continent.

In the early 1900s, the Canadian government bought 700 plains bison belonging to the last wild herds from a Montana rancher and shipped them north to Buffalo and Elk Island National Parks.

The bison in Buffalo National Park died out due to a number of factors that ultimately led to the closure of the park, but Elk Island’s bison thrived.

There are plains bison at six other parks including Elk Island, Grasslands, Prince Albert, Wood Buffalo, Riding Mountain and Waterton Lakes National Parks.