Government of Canada Wood Bison Translocation to Indigenous Community
Parks Canada’s Bison Story
· As North America’s largest land mammal, millions of bison once ranged across the continent from Alaska to Mexico and were an important resource for Indigenous peoples who lived on the plains.
· At the turn of the 20th century, wild wood bison were nearing extinction following decades of market hunting for their hides and to clear the plains for agriculture. Populations fell from around 168,000 animals to a few hundred in what is now Wood Buffalo National Park.
· In 1965, 22 wood bison were transferred from Wood Buffalo National Park to Elk Island National Park, where they were used to start a tuberculosis- and brucellosis-free conservation herd separated from the plains bison herd. Elk Island National Park wood bison have since been contributed to new free-ranging bison herds in British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, Yukon, Northwest Territories, Alaska, and Russia.
· Bison are considered a pillar of ecosystem health, providing numerous benefits to nature and other animals.
· Parks Canada strives to maintain a balanced herd with enough grazing land to keep them healthy, while also leaving vegetation and rangeland for other species. Periodically, bison must be translocated out of the park to ensure the habitat is not over-grazed, creating an opportunity to provide bison to conservation projects in North America.
· Throughout Elk Island National Park’s history, surplus bison have been provided to other national parks, to conservation projects in Canada and the United States, and for auction where they have contributed to Canada’s successful bison ranching industry. Most wood bison in Canada today are descended from members of the Elk Island herd.
· Parks Canada manages wood bison at three other national parks across the country: Wood Buffalo, Kluane and Nahanni national parks.
History of wood bison conservation in Elk Island National Park
· Wood bison as a distinct subspecies were once thought completely lost due to population decline and disease. However, in 1958 a small isolated population was rediscovered in northern Wood Buffalo National Park, with 22 of those sent to Elk Island National Park in 1965.
· In an effort to create an “insurance” herd for the subspecies recovery, the small herd was placed in a former isolation area south of the Yellowhead Highway, which had been cleared of all its plains bison and other ungulates, considered as potential disease-carriers.
The difference between plains and wood bison
· Wood bison are adapted for the colder climate of the north as their habitat once ranged across Alaska, the North-West Territories, as well as northern Alberta, Saskatchewan, and British Columbia. They are easily identified at Elk Island National Park as they are found exclusively on the south side of Highway 16.
· Compared to plains bison, wood bison are larger and taller, and they have longer legs, darker fur, and hair that often droops over their forehead. They have smaller, pointier beards and their legs are not as hairy as those of plains bison. Wood bison humps are tall and rectangular and the highest point of their hump sits well far forward of their shoulders.
· Elk Island National Park is home to two subspecies of bison; plains bison on the north side of Highway 16 and wood bison on the south side of Highway 16.
Why is the restoration of bison important?
Parks Canada supports the bison conservation for the following reasons:
· Ecological Restoration: As “ecosystem engineers,” bison influence the landscape in ways that benefit many plant and animal communities. For example, bison create “wallows” – bowl-like depressions made by rolling on dry ground – that provide habitat for other animals. They deposit droppings that act as fertilizer for plants and support insect populations, which in turn feed bird species and a source of food for predators
· Cultural Reconnection: Bison are an icon of Canada’s history. They were an integral part of the lives of Indigenous peoples and Canada’s pioneers, and they still have an important role in many Indigenous cultures to this day. Restoring bison to the landscape is an opportunity to renew cultural and historical connections.
· Inspiring Discovery: Bison create opportunities for visitors to Elk Island National Park to learn about the ecological and cultural importance of bison.
· Alignment with Parks Canada Mandate: Parks Canada manages an extensive system of protected natural and cultural heritage areas. In managing national parks, Parks Canada maintains or restores ecological integrity and provides Canadians with opportunities to discover and enjoy them. Protecting the wildlife, lands and waters that make up the national park system helps to ensure these places are here for present and future generations to appreciate and experience.
Significance of sending bison to Indigenous communities
· The Government of Canada is committed to reconciliation and nation-to-nation relationships with Indigenous peoples, based on a recognition of rights, respect, co-operation, and partnership. Parks Canada recognizes the role of Indigenous peoples as partners in conserving Canada’s natural and cultural heritage and sharing the stories of these treasures.
· Past translocations to Indigenous communities include 89 plains bison calves to the Blackfeet nation in Montana in 2016, 25 wood bison to Saulteaux First Nation near North Battleford, Saskatchewan in 2018 and 30 plains bison to Flying Dust First Nation near Meadow Lake, Saskatchewan in 2019. Any Indigenous group interested in discussing a bison transfer is encouraged to contact Elk Island National Park.
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