Wood bison in Canada
About the wood bison
Appearance and habitat
The wood bison is the largest land animal in Canada. Adults have dark brown coats with long shaggy fur on their shoulders and legs. They have large humps on their backs, and very large heads. Male bison are typically larger than female bison.
Within Canada, wood bison are currently found in British Columbia, Alberta, Yukon and Northwest Territories. There are also wood bison in Manitoba, though this is also outside the species’ historical range. They live in boreal and aspen forests where they often forage in open, meadows, particularly during the winter. Some populations of wood bison prefer willow savannas in the summer and winter months, and open forests in the fall.
COSEWIC. 2013. COSEWIC assessment and status report on the Plains Bison (Bison bison bison) and the Wood Bison (Bison bison athabascae) in Canada. Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. Ottawa. xv + 109 pp. (Species at Risk Public Registry).
Map showing approximate original (pre-settlement) range of wood bison in Canada (outlined) and current distribution of nine subpopulations (shaded polygons; Aishihik, Nordquist, Nahanni, Etthithun, Hay-Zama, Mackenzie, Greater Wood Buffalo National Park, Elk Island National Park, Chitek Lake). The map also shows the original distribution of plains bison (hatched polygon).
Food and feeding
The main food source for wood bison is grasses and sedges, but they also eat lichens, shrubs, leaves and bark when available.
Importance of wood bison
Wood bison are an important part of Canadian culture and identity. This species has significant economic and ecological value, and strong spiritual and cultural importance for Indigenous peoples.
Status and threats
Wood bison were listed as threatened under the Species at Risk Act in 2003. Threatened species have declining populations across their range and are at risk of becoming endangered, extirpated, or extinct if nothing is done to protect them.
During the early 1800s, wood bison numbers were estimated at 168,000 animals, but by the late 1800s only a few hundred animals remained. Over-hunting, changes in the distribution of habitat, and severe winters may all have played a role in the decline. In 1922, Wood Buffalo National Park was created to protect habitat and prevent extinction of wood bison (see references in the Recovery Strategy).
From 1925 to 1928, to help with overpopulation, plains bison from Buffalo National Park in Wainwright, Alberta were translocated to Wood Buffalo National Park. There, the plains bison interbred with wood bison and introduced two cattle diseases to their populations, bovine tuberculosis and bovine brucellosis, which now pose the biggest threat to wood bison recovery. These diseases occur in wood bison located within and adjacent to Wood Buffalo National Park. Wood Buffalo National Park is home to around 50% of all remaining wood bison, therefore the presence of cattle disease in this population is a major management concern.
Habitat loss is also considered a threat for wood bison. Habitat for wood bison has decreased due to human development for agriculture and industrial projects. Altered natural floods caused by hydroelectric projects, as well as changing climate, have reduced habitat quality for some wood bison, particularly in the Peace-Athabasca delta area.
In January 2020, the Minister of Environment and Climate Change determined that wood bison are facing imminent threats to their recovery, with the assessment having focused on the Ronald Lake and Wabasca herds in northeastern Alberta. The Government of Canada will aim to work with the Government of Alberta and local Indigenous communities to put robust plans in place to address the imminent threats to the species.
What we are doing
Wood bison are a priority species under the Pan-Canadian Approach to Transforming Species at Risk Conservation in Canada. To facilitate wood bison recovery, we are leading a Priority Species Working Group, cooperating with Parks Canada and provincial and territorial governments. The working group provides a venue to identify, discuss, prioritize, implement, and update, as necessary, potential recovery actions and initiatives.
A federal Recovery Strategy for wood bison was published in 2018. As indicated in the Recovery Strategy, steps are being taken to identify critical habitat for the species. We worked with numerous partners in developing the Recovery Strategy for wood bison in Canada. We have also worked with provincial governments and international organizations to manage diseases that affect wood bison, and reintroduce the species into the wild for recovery. This has helped increase the population since 1987.
Stewardship and conservation programs
Bison Control Area
The Government of Northwest Territories manages a Bison Control Area, which is a bison-free zone, to prevent the spread of disease to uninfected animals within the Mackenzie and Nahanni herds. Alberta has a similar program to prevent disease transmission to the Hay Zama herd in the Bison Management area in the western portion of the province.
Monitoring, population management and research
In the late 1800s, the only wood bison in existence occurred in northern Alberta and southern Northwest Territories. Wood Buffalo National Park was established in 1922 to protect this last population of wood bison. Most populations have been founded either directly or indirectly from Wood Buffalo National Park, which contains the highest level of genetic diversity of all wood bison populations in the world. Much of the genetic diversity present in Wood Buffalo National Park wood bison is not represented anywhere else. Adjacent to the diseased herds of Wood Buffalo National Park are the Ronald Lake and Wabasca herds, which are genetically-distinct, naturally-founded and disease-free. Monitoring projects of wood bison within and near Wood Buffalo National Park using aerial and on-the-ground surveys help to determine population size, distribution, productivity and health of herds. In particular, potential contact between the diseased Delta subpopulation from Wood Buffalo National Park and the Ronald Lake herd is monitored using GPS collars. Habitat use will continue to be monitored to provide information on preferred habitats and movement corridors of wood bison in and around Wood Buffalo National Park.
Elk Island National Park in Alberta is a fenced environment and therefore wood bison populations must be actively managed to prevent overpopulation, which can have negative impacts on the park’s ecosystem and the bison themselves. Permits have enabled the transfer of wood bison from Elk Island National Park to the Western College of Veterinary Medicine in Saskatchewan for research on conservation and reproduction to benefit the conservation of wild, disease-free populations in Canada. A project has also been initiated to transfer wood bison from Elk Island National Park to Saulteaux First Nations in Saskatchewan. In addition to its contribution to the recovery of the species, the project will support the First Nation’s culture and contributes to reconciliation with Indigenous peoples of Canada. Additional wood bison have been transferred on multiple occasions to the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia), Russian Federation, for both educational purposes and to repopulate the landscape with the closest-living ancestor to the bison that once lived in that area. Wood bison have also been transferred from Elk Island National Park to Alaska to reintroduce a free-ranging herd.
We have also recently supported projects through the Habitat Stewardship Fund headed by provincial and territorial governments, as well as projects incorporating Indigenous Knowledge through the Aboriginal Fund for Species at Risk, to enhance wood bison conservation in Canada.
We issue permits under the Species at Risk Act to domestic and international organizations and governments for research, monitoring, data collection, and reintroduction to support the recovery of wild populations, and to promote public education.
See Permits as per section 73 and 74 of SARA related to wood bison, for more information.
Key documents and resources
- COSEWIC Assessment and Status Report on the plains bison (Bison bison bison) and the wood bison (Bison bison athabascae) in Canada (2014)
- Imminent Threat Assessment for Wood Bison
- Pan-Canadian Approach to Transforming Species at Risk Conservation in Canada
- Permits as per section 74 of SARA related to wood bison
- Recovery Strategy for the wood bison (Bison bison athabascae) in Canada
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