For the first time in more than 100 years, Banff National Park in Canada is going to be home to wild bison.
The Great Plains and eastern slopes of the Rockies were once home to as many as 60 million bison, but by the late 1800s, settlers and disease had almost wiped them out. In 1889, a prominent conservationist estimated only about 1,000 animals remained.
Soon, though, people realized something needed to be done and started taking steps to protect these animals. In the early 1900s, the Canadian government actually tracked down some of the last wild animals and shipped them by train to wildlife refuges. Today, thanks to more than 100 years of conservation efforts, bison numbers have partially recovered. About a half million are managed as livestock, with about 30,000 wild individuals.
On Feb. 6, 2017, as part of ongoing efforts to reintroduce wild bison to the North American wilds, Parks Canada relocated 16 bison from Elk Island National Park to Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada.
Though this is something to be celebrated, moving North America’s biggest land animal is anything but simple or easy.
An adult bison can weigh up to 2,000 pounds.
These particular bison started their journey at Elk Island National Park near Edmonton, Alberta.
Elk Island has a herd of about 390 animals.
To start, park rangers wrangled up the bison and picked out 16 prospective individuals.
The bison, mostly pregnant young females, were quarantined and given a health checkup before the move then loaded into specially created shipping containers.
The containers had air holes cut out of the top, special doors, and bedding to make the bison comfortable during what was going to be a very long ride.
The bison (and humans) set off on a nearly 250-mile road trip.
It turns out, Canada’s kind of big. Alberta is just Canada’s sixth largest territory, but it’s nearly the size of Texas.
After seven hours, everyone arrived at the Ya Ha Tinda Ranch outside Banff National Park after midnight.
But that wasn’t the end of their journey. Heck, it wasn’t even the most incredible part of it. Because then there was the part where they brought in the helicopter.
Banff National Park is huge. It’s bigger than the state of Delaware. And there are no roads where these guys were headed.
Ya Ha Tinda Ranch is the closest you can get by road. From there on, Banff is horse, boot, or cross-country ski territory. So instead of walking the whole distance, the bison, along with all the personnel and equipment, needed to be flown in.
After a 15-mile helicopter ride, the bison finally touched down in their new home: Banff’s Panther Valley.
Panther Valley was chosen for a couple of reasons. It has plenty of bison-friendly open areas, good vegetation, and insulation in the form of warm chinook winds. It’s also far enough from people to give the bison a bit of breathing room as they get used to their new space.
Despite the long trip, the bison made themselves at home pretty darn quick.
Though the road may have been bumpy, the bison seemed no worse for the wear. They found food and water pretty quick. “They’re incredibly robust,” said project manager Karsten Heuer. Within a few hours they were rubbing horns and bucking playfully. “I’ve got a tremendous respect for these animals.”
These bison will hopefully be the start of a new wild herd in Banff.
The road trip was just the start of a five-year reintroduction plan.
For the next 16 months, they’ll stay in an enclosure in Panther Valley to let them give birth and get attached the land. In the summer of 2018, they’ll be released to the park as a whole.
Reintroducing the bison has a number of benefits. Visitors to Banff can learn more about them, for instance, and they’re also part of the region’s culture and history. They even help the plants grow.
But more than that, the mere presence of wild bison has an effect on people.
“Bison are an incredibly iconic animal,” Heuer says. They’re all at once rugged, adaptable, and strong. They symbolize wildness.
But they’re also living in an often human-centric world. Even Banff National Park is only about 100 miles away from Calgary, a million-person city. Just by existing, the bison will continue to ask us things we’ll have to grapple with, Heuer says.
Things like where we should draw the line between wilderness and civilization. Or whether all this effort could have been avoided by simply taking more care not to nearly wipe them out a hundred years ago. Or what we want the future to look like.
“It’s good to have an animal as big and burly as a bison to help us keep things in perspective,” Heuer says.
Note: There was a small display herd of plains bison in Banff National Park until 1997, but the herd was not wild and did not have full access to the ecosystem.