Millions of wild bison called Canada’s first national park home for 10,000 years before hunting decimated the population. Several dozen were just released back into Banff as part of a five-year bison restoration project.
A herd of plains bison is freely roaming the backcountry of Banff National Park for the first time in 140 years, Parks Canada announced this week. Although a captive display herd lived in the park from the early 1900s until 1997, millions of wild bison long used to freely roam the land that became Canada’s first national park until they nearly went extinct in the 19th century due to overhunting.
Now they’re back, thanks to a multi-million-dollar conservation effort on behalf of Parks Canada. In 2017, Parks Canada relocated 16 bison from Elk Island National Park to Banff National Park and held them in “soft-release pasture” in a remote part of the park called Panther Valley to help them adapt to their new home and establish a breeding ground. Over the last year and a half, several bison have given birth. Ten babies were added to the herd in 2017 and another seven or eight have joined them in 2018.
“We decided to make a significant investment in supporting them for a year and a half and actually have them calve twice,” Karsten Heuer, Banff National Park bison reintroduction project manager, told the Calgary Herald. “We were told by other reintroduction experts and bison ranchers that this was probably the single most important thing we could do to anchor and bond them to this landscape.”
On July 29, the herd was released from that area into a new 463-square-mile reintroduction zone in the eastern slopes of Banff where they will roam. To monitor their movements and keep track of how they interact with other native species in the park—including bears and wolves—the bison have been fitted with GPS collars. In 2022, this five-year pilot project will end and the park will evaluate if bison restoration has a long-term future in Banff.
If you happen to encounter any of these wild bison in Banff, do not do what one man did earlier this week in Yellowstone National Park and exit your car to taunt one of these animals (the bison charged him but got bored and eventually wandered off). While the U.S. National Park Service legally requires travelers to maintain at least a 25-yard distance between them and bison, Banff National Park tells guests to keep a distance of at least 100 meters—or 109 yards—from the new free-roaming bison.