Bison reintroduced to Banff National Park in Canada

Stuart Forster interviews Carsten Heuer about the project that saw bison reintroduced to Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada.

At the beginning of 2017 bison were reintroduced to Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada. Within months the initial population of 16 grew to 26, thanks to the springtime births of 10 calves.

Carsten Heuer is the Bison Reintroduction Project Manager for Banff National Park. He agreed to discuss the work undertaken as part of a $6.5 million project, along with the challenges faced in reintroducing North America’s largest land animal to Canada’s oldest national park..

“Conservation and parks go through phases. In Banff getting established happened over a hundred years ago, in 1885. Initially, it was to increase tourism and generate more money for the railway, to bring more people to the area. Over time — within about 15 years — they realised that ‘so many people are coming it threatens this place’. Then some of the emphasis started being less on tourism and more on conservation. Today it’s a balance between the two. That’s tough a lot of the time,” says Carsten.

He admits the bison reintroduction project is a huge undertaking. A phased approach, over five years, has been adopted.

Bison reintroduced to Banff National Park

“Hopefully the herd will grow slowly. Our big challenge is making sure they anchor to the place that they’re at and accept this new landscape as their home. I say new to them but bison do belong here. There’s archaeological evidence and First Nations’ cultural history. I’ve found bison bones and skulls in the backcountry of Banff National Park,” he reveals.

“It’s been going well so far. It’s super interesting to work on because there is no blueprint. Bison have been reintroduced to other places before but never in a place that has the complexities that we’re having to deal with.

It’s a very remote backcountry area of the park. Where we’re starting is 40 kilometres from the nearest road. It’s a two-day hike, horseback ride or ski, depending on the season and mode of travel. We manage it as a wilderness zone.

The park is one of the more popular ones in North America. We get over four million visitors a year. We’re within an hour’s drive of the city of Calgary, which has 1.2 million people and has an international airport…That’s a fairly healthy human population, none of whom have has the experience of encountering or coexisting with bison,” says the manager of the project.

Parks Canada's Red Chairs in Banff National Park, Alberta.
Parks Canada’s Red Chairs in Banff National Park, Alberta.

The disappearance of bison

“Bison disappeared from the area that is now Banff National Park for the same reason they disappeared from across the North American plains. They were over-hunted. We think the last bison was around here 140 to 150 years ago. It’s been a long absence,” he explains.

There are a lot of places where bison and people coexist. Probably the most similar example to Banff is Yellowstone National Park, which has around 5,000 bison and roughly the same number of human visitors as us a year. By and large they coexist just fine and people are pretty enthralled by the bison. They’re magnificent animals. Iconic. They symbolise wildness and people are usually thrilled to witness them in the wild,” says Carsten enthusiastically.

So how long will the bison be enclosed in Panther Valley? I ask.

“We’re holding them there until they calve a second time. That’s part of the design of the project, to get them to anchor to the place. We’ve had a few people who’ve made the trip to see them and they’ve been pretty thrilled. Once we release them they’re going to have access to a much larger area, portions of which are much more accessible — certainly within a day trip on a mountain bike or horse.

We’re phasing this. The first five years is a trial. If it succeeds, and we determine longer-term bison restoration is feasible in this landscape, projecting 10, 20 and 30 years down the road. Then bison would be a lot more accessible. We’re definitely taking the long-term view from a visitation standpoint. We need to get the ecological and re-acquaintance side of the equation. We know we need to get things right and that’s why we’re starting in a remote area,” he explains.

Remarkably, natural predators don’t necessarily realise immediately that the reintroduced animals are a source of prey.

“In the Yukon, it took over 20 years for the wolves to accept and realise the bison were a potential food source. The population there grew quickly. But elsewhere natural checks and balances kicked in quite quickly. We’re not sure what will happen in Banff. It’s an exciting part of the project. All of the natural predators of bison still exist here — the wolves, grizzly bears and scavengers such as wolverines. We have an almost complete ecosystem and bison are the final major missing piece.

We’re not sure how quickly the herd will grow or decrease….we’ll be evaluating what we learn in the first five years about growth rates and survival, to project into the future to set some population targets,” says Carsten about the bison currently in Panther Valley.

The snow-capped mountains of the Canadian Rockies in Banff National Park.
Snow-capped mountains of the Canadian Rockies in Banff National Park.

Reasons for choosing Panther Valley

“The two major reasons are good quality habitat and a quiet place with not too much human use to start this reacquaintance between two major species of North America, bison and humans,” he explains.

“We used what we know about bison’s preference for food and forage to develop predictive a model for habitat. The Panther Valley is kind of the bull’s eye in terms of the best quality habitat we have in the park…once we release them and they step out of the gate they don’t have to go looking for their first good meals.

For people there may be some discomfort getting reacquainted with these animals that have been missing for 150 years…you need a bit of a warm-up period. We felt we needed to start slowly, with just a few people at a time interacting with the bison, so it was better to start in the backcountry rather than next to a highway or one of the towns,” explains Carsten, who grew up in Alberta.

Loving the great outdoors

The animals are part of a hardy species of mammals who consume significantly less water than domestic cattle and are about 30 per cent more efficient in their use of food.

“Bison are a grassland and meadow-loving species. They love to be out in the open. Even in the harshest winter storms bison will just face into the wind. They have such insulated coats and are such tough, rugged animals that they will stay out in the open and up on ridges when other animals would just freeze to death.

Similarly, in summer, when it can reach plus 30°C, the bison — even though they have shade available to them in trees — prefer to be out in the open and I think that’s partly their evolution in the plains where there were not a lot of trees and where they can stay out in the open and readily detect the approach of any danger,” says Carsten.

What happens if people approach bison? I ask.

“Generally speaking, bison move off. They recognise people in backcountry areas as not normal and will shy off. In some other national parks it’s a challenge for people to get good photos of bison because they continue to move away…that’s what we want to continue to have,” responds Carsten.

“Along roads in Yellowstone bison have learnt it’s a waste of energy to move off and people have mistaken that for being tame. That’s when people run into problems, particularly in the age of cell phone cameras when people will approach to within six feet, turn their back and take a selfie, having invaded the personal space of a wild animal. That’s when a person can get butted or gored.

Those are very rare instances in a place like Yellowstone but we’re addressing them through a good education programme. Paired with good signage, teachings through our interpretative programme and announcements in papers about things to take into account. The general guidelines we’re laying out for people is to stay three bus lengths away, that’s around 40 metres. If the bison isn’t moving off and they’re right in your route you should consider taking an alternative path,” warns the expert.

Of course, other wild animals already inhabit Banff National Park.

“We have elk and during the rut — the breeding season — the bull elk can be a little bit ramped up. We coexist with grizzly bears. They require good education for people who are constantly changing and arriving…bison are just another species we’re teaching people to coexist with,” adds Carsten.

For millennia bison have played a key role in First Nations heritage. This stuffed bison is displayed at Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump in Alberta.
For millennia bison have played a key role in First Nations heritage. This stuffed bison is displayed at Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump in Alberta, where bison have been reintroduced to Banff National Park.

From Elk Island National Park

From where did the original six male and 10 female bison now living in Banff National Park come? I ask.

“They came from Elk Island National Park which is around 450km north of Banff, also in Alberta, but in different habitat. It’s outside of the mountains. The real attractive factor for us was that the bison there are genetically pure. They are descendants of the wild bison that were bought by the Canadian from an American rancher who had collected the last few dozen in the late 1800s.

They are healthy. Quite a few populations have brucellosis and tuberculosis. It was important for us that we didn’t start with that.

Elk Island National Park is the go-to place for bison reintroductions around the world. They’ve taken animals from there to Siberia, Alaska, and throughout the United States and Canada.

For translocations, Elk Island has handling facilities, a series of corrals, shoots and gates that allow you to round up animals and put the ones that you want in pens,” Carsten answers.

First Nations artefacts made from bison displayed at Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump UNESCO World Heritage Site in Alberta
First Nations’ items made from bison displayed at Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump UNESCO World Heritage Site in Alberta

Transporting bison to Banff

“The trick for us was to think ahead to the next stage of their journey. Not just the road component…but the last, which involved an airlift by helicopter. On the road, we put them in shipping containers on the back of trucks…in groups of two or four. We gave them a mild calming agent with injecting sticks when they were in the chutes. It didn’t put them to sleep or anything.

There’s one chute called a squeeze, where you can hold each animal relatively still. That allowed us to put rubber tubes on their horns that would prevent them from goring each other if they were a little bit aggressive in the containers.

We took them by road to as close as possible to the pasture then the next morning used a heavy lift helicopter, used in industrial logging, so has a lot of capacity. We used that to sling these containers, one by one, the 25 kilometres from the end of the road into the backcountry into the pastures.

We put a little video online. They basically charged out of those containers and within a few minutes were eating their first meals and, within hours, drinking from troughs,” says Carsten of the translocation, during which all of the females were pregnant. All of the animals were young — just two or three years of age.

Challenges posed by moving bison

“The toughest thing was all the unknowns. The success is determined by the animals and their reactions.

Would they get out of shipping containers? We had to develop a unique, modified ramp.

We used a big helicopter with quite a lot of downwash from the rotors. Would the animals in the containers start to freak out?

All along the way we had Plan B and C contingencies.

What if we couldn’t airlift them? We had drugs on hand to dart them. We had slings as a backup plan, that we could lift them in.

Fortunately, we didn’t have to, but it was smart to have them in place. Leading up was full anxieties and stresses,” admits Carsten, whose role entails multifaceted work.

”It’s my shift and I’m about to go out and fill up their troughs, care for the animals and pick up their poo. I do the on-the-ground stuff. It’s good for a supervisor to stay in touch with the realities and challenges. The behaviour of the animals’ changes with the seasons, the breeding and their hormones.

I also get to work right at the top levels with the managers of the parks, the head of the national programmes for restoration and the joining land jurisdictions, like the province of Alberta, discussing bison restoration. It’s rewarding for me because I do the meetings and conference calls and work with my hands,” he says.

Bison grazing below Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump in Alberta, Canada. The First Nations' hunting ground was used for 6,000 years and is today designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Bison grazing below Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump in Alberta, Canada. The First Nations’ hunting ground was used for 6,000 years and is today designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Bison in Banff’s landscape

What have been the chief upsides of involvement in the project? I ask.

“I’ve seen bison melt away the doubts of so many people,” responds Carsten.

“I’ve seen how well these animals fit into this landscape that we’ve brought them into. I’ve spent a ton of time here and seen moose, elk, bighorn sheep, wolves and grizzly bears. Once we reintroduced them I remember coming down the pathway near the cabin we have near the pasture. I looked up and you could see them standing in the shrubs and this thought burst into my head; these animals belong here, and they look like they’ve been here forever. We’re doing the right thing and returning something that has been missing,” says Carsten before heading out into the pasture in Panther Valley.

Further information

For more information about the province and country as a whole see the Travel Alberta and Explore Canada websites.

Photos illustrating this post are by Why Eye Photography.

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  • Tania Travis

    January 14, 2018 at 05:08 Reply

    There are some comfortable modern spa hotels in Banff. We enjoyed walking and cycling in the surrounding area during our stay last summer. I didn’t know about the bison but love that they have returned.

    • Stuart Forster

      January 15, 2018 at 09:01 Reply

      Banff is a lovely base for a holiday. There’s so much to do in the surrounding countryside and wildlife is just part of the appeal.

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