• Plains bison with their calves in banff national park

    Plains bison with their calves in an enclosed pasture in Banff National Park, Alta. A five-year, $6.4-million project by Parks Canada hopes to re-establish the iconic species in part of their historic northern range. (Photo: Niki Wilson)

Spring in the remote Panther River valley in Alberta’s Banff National Park sounds almost exactly like you imagine it should. The air explodes with birdsong. The river, finally free of ice, roars along its course. Fat bumblebees hum by like tiny zeppelins, occasionally colliding with scorpionweed blossoms. A cool wind rustles the trees.

But this year, the season has brought a sound not heard in the valley for more than a century, one that was once almost entirely lost not just here but across the great plains of North America. It is a low rumbling that vibrates in your ribs as much as it does your ears, and that intensifies as you get closer to its source. It is the sound of female plains bison communicating with their young. 

The 10 calves, woolly and orange and pressed against their mothers’ sides, were born in April and May 2017 in an 18-hectare fenced pasture that Parks Canada built as part of its five-year, $6.4-million pilot project to reintroduce plains bison to a 1,200-square-kilometre area on the eastern slopes of the park. If the project works, the bison will eventually wander freely over a part of its historic northern range, something that hasn’t happened since the species was nearly driven to extinction by overhunting in the mid-to-late 1800s.

Plains bison grazing in Banff National Park

Plains bison graze in their 18-hectare fenced pasture in Banff National Park. (Photo: Niki Wilson)

Parks Canada hopes to restore a historically dominant herbivore — and the largest land mammal in North America — to a landscape where it once played multiple important ecological roles, including maintaining open meadows and grasslands through intense grazing and creating habitat for everything from elk to badgers to ground squirrels. The bison’s return is also a step forward in the efforts of some Indigenous groups to reconnect with an animal that was central to their culture for millennia.

“What national parks are trying to do is present to the Canadian public, and to the world, examples of landscapes, processes and ecosystems that were here when Europeans first arrived,” says Karsten Heuer, who is managing the project for Parks Canada. Up until the late 1800s, an estimated 30 million to 60 million bison lived in North America, including in the Banff region, where a bison skull found buried beneath the Banff townsite was dated at 4,000 years old.

For the first year and a half of the project, the bison — the six bulls and 10 pregnant females who were brought to Banff from Alberta’s Elk Island National Park last February, and now their calves — will be fed and protected within the pasture, which will improve both their chances of survival and their ties to their new home before they’re released as a free-roaming herd this summer.

Heuer will oversee their journey. He watched one of the pregnant females labour through a series of spring snow squalls. She alternated between standing up, lying down and writhing on her back in the snow, pawing at her belly until finally her calf slid from her onto the ground.

Within moments another female, a new mother herself, came to help her lick the newborn clean. Soon, the calf struggled to its feet. “In the first 10 minutes it was taking its first steps,” says Heuer. “You could almost see the calf grow into its own skin — the skin of an animal designed to move.” 

Our culture is very closely tied to the buffalo, both for subsistence and spiritually. When the buffalo were almost exterminated, we became a whole lot less Blackfoot. 

Although there are those who have expressed concern about the bison moving out of the park and onto private or provincially managed land once they are released later this year, many welcome the idea of the animal returning to the park to wander freely again. Leroy Little Bear is one of them.

The Blackfoot elder has been instrumental in building support for a return of wild plains bison to Alberta, and was a key player in the creation of the Northern Tribes Buffalo Treaty, an agreement that 10 First Nations from Alberta, British Columbia and Montana signed in 2014 and that is in part aimed at restoring the bison to the Northern Great Plains.

“Our culture is very closely tied to the buffalo, both for subsistence and spiritually,” says Little Bear. “Some of our sacred societies, such as the Buffalo Women’s Society and the Buffalo Horn Society, arise from and revolve around our relationship with the buffalo. So when the buffalo were almost exterminated, we became a whole lot less Blackfoot. The beliefs and the stories were still there, but the physical aspect was lost.”

Since then, plains bison have been reintroduced to Blackfoot territory in Montana and now Banff, and Little Bear believes the cultural reconnection has begun. “With this restoration,” he says, “the stories are being reaffirmed.”

The relationship between groups such as the Blackfoot and bison in Banff were literally forged in fire. “The vast majority of fires that shaped this landscape and the age structure of the forest is not due to lightning — it’s due to Indigenous burning,” says Heuer. Historically, Indigenous people ignited fires as they moved out of valleys for the winter. The fires promoted growth come spring, drawing bison and other large mammals that local First Nations hunted.

Parks Canada adopted this ancient practice in 2015, when it burned approximately 865 hectares of meadow in the Panther River Valley in preparation for the bison’s arrival. Over the next three years, an additional 635 hectares of meadow will be burned in the valley, conditions permitting. “We hope that what comes up next spring is a burst of succulent growth that is full of nutrients,” says Heuer. “What we’re doing with meadow-burning is actually mimicking an age-old human relationship not just with bison, but with an entire landscape.” 

Karsten Heuer Geoff Skinner with Honeywagon

Caring for bison is no easy feat. Here, Karsten Heuer and Geoff Skinner pose with "The Honeywagon," which they use to collect the animals' feces to help prevent the spread of parasites. Bison are prolific poopers, so the task can take hours. (Photo: Niki Wilson)

Before the picture-perfect scene of plains bison roaming across a verdant expanse of meadow unspools in reality, however, there is poop to scoop. And fencing to maintain. And feeding systems to fine-tune. And bison behaviour management to oversee. And the safety of staff to ensure. There are, in fact, dozens of moving parts that Heuer is responsible for, each of which can help determine the project’s success or failure.

Removing patties from the pasture, for instance, helps reduce parasites in the bison population while they’re enclosed in such a small area. It’s not a quick or easy job; bison can defecate up to 12 times per day — no wonder dried patties were such a plentiful fuel source for Indigenous people and early European settlers — and it takes many hours daily to shovel up the pie-sized mounds that dot the pasture. 

Another part of supporting the bison through this early reintroduction phase is feeding them, because there isn’t enough to graze on in their current enclosure. Heuer announces the arrival of alfalfa cubes with bursts from a referee whistle he keeps around his neck, creating an association between the sound and feed. This might prove useful later if the bison need to be lured from one place to another.

The payoff for all this labour is already apparent, even though the bison have been here for less than four months. The great meadow makers are, once again, redefining this landscape, mowing the brush and young evergreens in their paddock and maintaining grasslands that benefit myriad species. Their presence means old relationships forged over thousands of years are picking up where they left off. Earlier in the spring, ravens and magpies pulled shedding winter hair from the bisons’ shoulders to line their nests. Cowbirds, too, have found the bison and are already riding on their backs, feasting on the insects kicked up by their hooves. Over millennia, cowbirds evolved a clever strategy to keep pace with migrating bison — they lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, which then raise the cowbird chicks as their own. Even ground squirrels are benefitting, the cropped grasses now too short to allow coyotes to sneak up. In return, the rodents dig holes everywhere, providing the loose, dusty earth bison love to roll in.

Bison are wild animals, and incredibly sensitive to their surroundings. Their instincts will kick in.

As Heuer tosses another patty into a trailer with the words “The Honey Wagon” etched on its tailgate, three bulls emerge from the dense shrubs. He slowly lets his shovel come to rest on the ground as they approach, eyeing the closing distance.

Their loose-hanging tails signal they are calm. Tail posture is one of many visual cues Heuer uses to read bison behaviour. He and his team consulted extensively with bison behaviour experts to understand how to manage the bison with as little stress to the animals as possible, and have adopted an animal-management style called low-stress stockmanship. Whit Hibbard, a Montana cattle and sheep rancher who’s an expert in low-stress stockmanship, trained Parks Canada staff in the techniques of the craft. Rather than using fear and intimidation to move the animals, he says, “We try to make our idea their idea. We position ourselves properly and use the natural instincts of the animal to our advantage.”

Hibbard says the semi-habituation to people is necessary for the welfare of the bison and people involved in the project. “But it won’t make the bison dull or less observant, like a bunch of dairy cows. Bison are wild animals, and incredibly sensitive to their surroundings. Their instincts will kick in regardless of what we’ve done with them.”

Stockmanship and tools such as the association of feeding cubes with whistle blasts will be integral to the success of the next phase of the project, when the bison are released into the 354-square-kilometre core of the reintroduction area after calving this spring. By gently guiding them to the new meadows burned the previous fall, “We can help them discover their new range in a controlled fashion,” says Heuer. “Hopefully over time that helps them anchor and develop patterns, and then those patterns will end up being passed down from generation to generation.”