The Current19:01Bringing back bison
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It’s been a long time since large herds of bison roamed what is now Treaty 7 territory in Alberta, but Clayton Whitney, manager of the Tsuut’ina Nation’s buffalo paddock, can see the impact reintroduction projects are having on the bison population and the surrounding wildlife.
“It’s amazing how much animals want to come on this side of the fence with the bison,” he told The Current. “We get everything from cougars and bears and moose and deer, elk.”
There was a point in time when as many as 60 million bison roamed the North American Great Plains, a flatland region that includes Alberta, Saskatchewan and several U.S. states. Travellers described hearing the sound of their hoof prints before they saw them, like creeping thunder.
But due, in part, to the over-hunting of bison — which coincided with government efforts to force Indigenous peoples onto reserves — their numbers significantly dropped. According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, plains bison didn’t exist in Canada by the late 1800s, and the population of wood bison were as low as 200.
“When the buffalo was first taken away, our way of life was severely impacted,” said Violet Meguinis, the consultation director for Tsuut’ina Nation. “We used to follow the buffalo…. Wherever it roamed and we followed it. We got everything off the buffalo.”
“Then, the newcomers came and then the treaties were signed and we were put on little tracts of land and we couldn’t follow the buffalo,” she added. Bison was a significant food and clothing resource for some Indigenous peoples.
WATCH: Tsuut’ina Nation describes its buffalo paddock as the ‘heart of the nation’:
In recent years, several bison reintroduction projects have started — often led by Indigenous peoples like the Tsuut’ina Nation.
Thanks to their efforts, there are as many as 100 bison on the ground in their buffalo paddock alone, and there could be as many as 160 by the year’s end.
Tsuut’ina Nation is also helping other Indigenous groups, such as Onion Lake Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, reintroduce bison to their lands, with some success.
“It’s exciting for us,” said Brennen Starlight, one of the workers on the nation’s buffalo paddock. “We like to see different nations and different reserves get buffalo.”
“[We] had quite a few just this past year come up and check out our herd and our setup and try to learn from us. So it’s pretty exciting.”
Although it’s taking a lot of work and patience, Meguinis feels the work they’re doing is helping them reclaim the animal that means so much to their nation.
“It’s fulfilling because our spirituality is so dependent on our connection with the land, the animals,” she said. “It makes us whole again.”
Meguinis’s work isn’t limited to Tsuut’ina Nation’s paddock. She’s also an advisor on a bison reintroduction project at Banff National Park in Alberta.
That project started in 2017 with just 16 animals. But those bison have settled into the park so well that when calving season concludes this year, their population will be closer to 100.
“Relocating a large land mammal onto a landscape is a challenge,” Salman Rasheed, the Banff field unit superintendent for Parks Canada, told The Current‘s Matt Galloway.
“So to see after five years it’s still there and doing well and healthy, I think it just is a really positive reminder that we can do these sort of relocations.”
We know from our Indigenous partners that bison formed part of their stories for millennia.– Salman Rasheed
Rasheed said the reintroduction plan was two-phased. The initial phase saw the 16 bison shipped from Elk Island National Park in Fort Saskatchewan, Alta., and placed in an enclosure in Banff National Park in order to “get them to bond to the site.”
“So we kept them in that soft-release pasture for two years, two calving seasons. The population increased to 31 animals,” he said.
“Then in 2019, we opened up the gates and let them go in Banff National Park in what we call the bison zone, which is about a 1,200 square kilometre area that they free range in.”
Rasheed said Parks Canada had discussed the idea of reintroducing bison to Banff National Park since 1997. The project involved a lot of planning with the agency’s partners, including Indigenous stakeholders, to make it happen.
He said the “ultimate goal” was to restore ecological integrity in the region, while also using the bison on the landscape for spiritual and cultural connections.
“We know from our Indigenous partners that bison formed part of their stories for millennia. So we knew bison were on that landscape,” he said.
They blessed the bison as they were leaving Elk Island, which was on Treaty 6 traditional territory, and they blessed the bison upon their arrival in Treaty 7 traditional territory.
“They continue to offer support both in terms of resources, in terms of their traditional ecological knowledge. Their elders have been out to visit the bison,” Rasheed said.
“So it’s just a really positive relationship and everyone seems to be winning.”
‘It was really inspirational’
That’s not to say the project didn’t have its challenges.
“They carry diseases that can be transmitted to livestock and cattle,” Rasheed said. “And so we put in place quite a few measures to mitigate those concerns,” such as isolation efforts and minimizing the contact between bison and cattle.
“During the course of the five-year pilot, we tested animals regularly — and we have a certified vet on our staff,” he added. “Always negative, and so the animals remained healthy. There were no diseases.”
But the obstacles didn’t stop with the diseases. There were times when some bison ventured outside of their “core zone” in the national park, resulting in some difficulty for both the workers and some of the animals.
“Four males, actually, during the course of five years decided to venture further away,” he said. “Two of those males, we nudged back into the home population. Two of those other males had to be destroyed.”
“We take our commitment to the province and those other land users very seriously, and once we discovered they were sort of far afield and could not be sort of hazed back, we decided to euthanize those animals.”
Still, Rasheed says the project has been “inspirational,” and it sets the stage for other wilding exercises and opportunities — for bison and other animals, like caribou, now and in the future.
“Even the youth that we were talking to, who had often not actually seen these bison … really seemed to resonate with them,” he said.
“They were so excited to have this kind of notion of wildness and Canada in their backyard that, you know, it was really inspirational. And that’s what it means to me.”
For Whitney, seeing and working with the bison on Treaty 7 territory is an amazing feeling.
“When you’re out there with them … you think back like 100 years ago — and even, I guess more than that — when they were roaming North America and there [were] no fence lines or anything,” he said.
“You can see it just in this paddock here and the different vegetation that grows…. Just what they naturally bring to the land.”