Plains Bison Herd Establishment for The Key First Nation


Bison Conservation

  • Bison are North America’s largest land mammal. Once, millions of them ranged across the continent from Alaska to Mexico. Bison play a vital role in Indigenous livelihoods and cultures on the plains.
  • At the turn of the 20th century, wild plains bison were at the brink of extinction following decades of market hunting for their hides and in order to clear the plains for agricultural development. Between 1907 and 1909, some of the last surviving bison were shipped to Alberta from Montana. The descendants of these bison can be seen in Elk Island National Park today.
  • Bison are considered a pillar of ecosystem health, providing numerous benefits to nature and other animals. 

The Key First Nation’s (TKFN) connection to bison

  • TKFN has been working on a bison project that would see a return and rejuvenation of traditions and culture related to bison.  
  • TKFN’s bison project is an innovative initiative that will actively engage youth in the accompanying training and skill development program.
  • The Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) has been working with The Key First Nation (TKFN) since early 2019. At that time, TKFN was in the planning process for establishing a plains bison herd at TKFN, and NCC was in the beginning stages of the development of a long-term management plan for the Old Man on His Back Prairie and Heritage Conservation Area (OMB) bison herd.

Parks Canada and bison conservation

  • Parks Canada is committed to maintaining a disease-free, genetically diverse herd, thereby contributing to the conservation of the species in North America and providing animals for the establishment of conservation herds, for Indigenous-managed herds and for partner initiatives related to bison conservation.
  • 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.
  • All of Canada’s plains bison conservation herds originated in Elk Island National Park because of their high genetic diversity and long history of disease-free status. Supporting the translocation of disease-free plains bison has been an important part of Elk Island National Park’s mission for more than a century.
  • In 2005, Grasslands National Park received 71 bison from Elk Island National Park, after a 120-year absence from the landscape. The initial herd consisted of 30 male calves, 30 female calves and 11 yearlings.
  • Grasslands National Park continues to be home to a managed population of genetically healthy plains bison. The current bison population, following this most recent transfer, is approximately 360-370 animals. 

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. Their droppings 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 Grasslands 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.

The Nature Conservancy of Canada’s role in bison conservation

  • The Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) is the nation’s leading not-for-profit, private land conservation organization, working to protect important natural areas and the species they sustain.
  • The NCC manages a bison conservation herd at the Old Man on His Back Prairie and Heritage Conservation Area (OMB).
  • Established by the NCC in 1996, OMB is a 5,297-hectare ranch located in Treaty Four Territory in southwest Saskatchewan. This area continues to hold cultural and spiritual importance for many Indigenous Nations including Anishnaabe, Dakota, Lakota, Nakoda, Nêhiyawak, Niitsitapi and Métis.
  • In 2003, NCC introduced a herd of 50 plains bison to reside within the native grasslands at OMB, as part of its management goals of returning large-scale ecosystem processes to the landscape. NCC’s management of this small, disease-free bison herd incorporates minimal, respectful handling of the animals and sustainable grazing management.
  • NCC’s Bison Management Plan for the herd at OMB includes Indigenous perspectives attained through an Indigenous Advisory Group. The group provides insight on herd management and identifies opportunities where Indigenous communities could benefit from the bison herd.
  • The Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) has been working with The Key First Nation (TKFN) in the process for establishing a plains bison herd at TKFN.
  • The NCC acknowledges that Indigenous peoples have protected and cared for the natural areas, plants and wildlife of their traditional territories for millennia. NCC is striving to better its engagement with Indigenous people and Nations. The organization is pleased to be a collaborative and supportive partner in various parts of the country and to contribute to Indigenous-led conservation and stewardship. Learn more here.

Significance of sending bison to Indigenous communities

  • The Government of Canada is committed to reconciliation and renewed relationships with Indigenous peoples, based on a recognition of rights, respect, collaboration, and partnership. Collaborating with numerous Indigenous groups across Canada, Parks Canada and Indigenous peoples are partners in conserving natural and cultural heritage and sharing the stories of these treasured places.
  • Grasslands National Park accepts requests from interested Indigenous communities and conservation projects to acquire bison. Requests may be fully or partially fulfilled, depending on the availability of surplus bison (for each sex and age class) identified to manage the population. Any requests that cannot be met in a given year may be re-directed to future years or other Parks Canada sites that may need to surplus bison, including Elk Island National Park.

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