Bison poised to make comeback in restricted parts of Banff park

Parks Canada recently released a proposal to reintroduce bison to restricted areas of Banff National Park.

Parks Canada recently released a proposal to reintroduce bison to restricted areas of Banff National Park. The detailed process outlines a multiyear program to establish a breeding herd of about 100 head. If the plan is successful, bison will be further reintroduced into other areas of the park.

Over the years, old bison bones have been uncovered at different sites in the eastside of the park. However, it’s been estimated that bison probably disappeared from the park well over 150 years ago. Habitat change may have been the cause — the bison subspecies in that area were the plains buffalo who preferred more open spaces.

Hundreds of years ago, the present eastside of the park might have been more open due to regular Prairie range fires that kept trees and brush from encroaching onto the open areas, thus providing more grazing space for the plains buffalo.

Without regular fires, encroaching forests would have kept the plains buffalo out on the plains. The wood buffalo subspecies that roamed in the more northern boreal forests were probably not in the Banff area.

Controlled burning in the park of potential bison grazing areas is part of the proposal.

In the development of the proposal, many stakeholder groups were consulted, including the local ranching community that borders onto areas near where the bison would be released. Most groups were supportive, but there were some serious concerns expressed by area ranchers.

Those concerns were the roaming of bison outside the park boundaries onto adjacent cattle-grazing leases, the transmission of diseases from bison to cattle, and Parks Canada response to disease outbreaks.

The last point is of particular note, as it refers to what can only be described as a lackadaisical and perhaps even obstructionist attitude that Parks Canada has shown in dealing with the ongoing diseased (mainly brucellosis) bison in and around Wood Buffalo National Park.

Those bison have drifted southward and have been found close to agricultural areas.

The federal government has had at least 80 years to deal with that ongoing disease threat to the cattle industry, but to this day seems resistant to take any appropriate action.

If that is their attitude toward dealing with free-roaming diseased bison, then the fears of ranchers near the proposed release area are serious indeed.

Park officials state that only disease-free bison from the Elk Island National Park herd will be released. Be that as it may — stuff happens — and there is no provision in the proposal that Banff bison will all be destroyed if any disease is found in the reintroduced herd.

The Alberta cattle industry would probably feel better about Parks Canada intentions with this reintroduction proposal if they took some real action in dealing with the diseased bison that they already have in and around Wood Buffalo Park.

The other concern is that reintroduced bison would begin to roam outside the Banff park. The plan proposes to erect major fencing to prevent that from happening, along with GPS collars on all the animals to keep tabs on them.

None of that will stop a hungry herd of bison from stampeding toward lush grazing land outside the boundaries. Which is why the creation of more open grazing land by fires is part of the proposal.

All of that is going to cost a lot of money — add in program managers, biologists and consultants and this project could easily cost millions.

Taxpayers should note — the plan is to restrict the bison to areas that are not readily accessible to the public. That’s not a way to get support for the proposal from citizens when they can’t see what they are paying for.

Ironically, the Banff park for almost 100 years had an enclosed bison paddock near the townsite that was a significant public attraction.

It was similar to the existing one at Waterton National Park. However, in 1997, it was torn down and the bison removed from the park by Banff park officials for not being natural enough.

Maybe so, but it was a tremendous venue for public education and goodwill about bison.

One suspects that this plan will be implemented — but it would sure be more fair to see it better address some of the legitimate concerns of the ranching community before millions of taxpayer dollars are spent.

— Ahead of the Heard


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