Travelling Bison

Elk Island National Park

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to see a herd of thundering bison flowing over the landscape? Elk Island National Park is only 45 minutes away from downtown Edmonton and is the premier Canadian destination to view wild bison wallowing, grazing and galloping in their natural habitat.

Start your own migration and follow Elk Island bison across Canada! Riding Mountain National Park, Grasslands National Park, Waterton Lakes National Park, Rocky Mountain House National Historic Site, Prince Albert National Park, and Banff National Park are all proud to protect bison that stemmed from the Elk Island bison family.

Periodically, bison must be translocated out of the park in order to ensure that the habitat is not over-grazed. This creates an opportunity to provide bison to conservation projects both here in Canada, and internationally. Throughout the park’s history, surplus bison have been provided to other national parks, to conservation projects in Canada and the US, and for auction where they have contributed to Canada’s successful bison ranching industry. Most bison in Canada today are descended from members of the Elk Island herd.

Supporting the relocation of disease-free bison has been an important part of Elk Island National Park’s mission for more than a century. Because of their long history of disease-free status, both the wood and plains bison herds in Elk Island National Park have supplied bison to national and international projects. In total over the past century, Elk Island has translocated nearly 3000 plains and wood bison to conservation sites around the globe. In the past few years, Elk Island has sent bison to support many exciting projects.

Banff National Park
A helicopter used to transport bison is has landed in a mountain meadow

A helicopter used to transport bison is has landed in a mountain meadow.

Parks Canada / Clayton Szafron

In 2017, a small group of bison were sent to Banff’s remote Panther Valley region as a test to see the feasibility of reintegrating bison into the fabric of Banff’s ecosystems, where they have been absent for over a hundred years. This is the first step in the five-year project to inform decisions regarding restoring wild bison in Banff over the long-term.

Bison are often considered to be a plains species but they also called the mountain valleys their home for millennia. Bison were hunted from the Banff area in the 1800s. However, between 1897 and 1997, Banff National Park maintained a herd of bison in a paddock. When the paddock and the bison were removed in 1997 to encourage the free flow of wildlife in the Bow Valley area, it was always the intention to return wild bison to Banff. First Nations people and conservationists have campaigned to return bison ever since.

Blackfeet Indian Nation, Montana, USA
Plains bison calves running down an alleyway in the plains bison handling facility at Elk Island National Park.

Plains bison calves running down an alleyway in the plains bison handling facility at Elk Island National Park.

© Parks Canada / Scott Mair

The bison, or “iinnii” in the Blackfoot language, is vitally important to First Nations peoples of the plains like the Blackfeet Indian Nation of Montana. There is a wider Indigenous-led movement called the Iinii Initiative to restore bison. The Blackfeet Nation is a signatory of the Buffalo Treaty, which works to restore bison to traditional territory for cultural and conservation reasons. Elk Island sent over 80 calves to the Blackfeet Indian Nation of Montana in the spring of 2016 as a part of the Iinnii Initiative. These bison calves are descendants of bison that once roamed there over 100 years ago.

American Prairie Reserve, Montana, USA
A large herd of plains bison roaming free on the American Prairie Reserve in Montana, USA.

A large herd of plains bison roaming free on the American Prairie Reserve in Montana, USA.

© American Prairie Reserve / Dennis Lingohr

The American Prairie Reserve in Montana is a private initiative to protect one of the most endangered natural ecosystems in North America: native tall-grass and short-grass prairies. The APR is stitching together existing nature preserves and privately held land to create the largest nature reserve in the continental United States. Their ultimate goal is to have 3 million acres under their protection.

Elk Island has contributed to this ambitious project by sharing over two hundred young plains bison over the course of three transfers. The APR is returning native species like plains bison and pronghorn to the area. They hope to restore the natural migration patterns of these species.

Lenskiye Stolby Nature Park, Republic of Sakha, Russia
A specialized trailer carrying wood bison calves is loaded onto a Russian cargo plane.

A specialized trailer carrying wood bison calves is loaded onto a Russian cargo plane.

© Parks Canada

In 2006, 2011, and 2013, three groups of 30 wood bison were transferred to Lenskiye Stolby Nature Park in the Republic of Sakha, Russia. These transfers were successful and the herd has reproduced and increased. The goal of the nature park is to rebuild an ecosystem like the one that existed in the area before the extinction of steppe bison thousands of years ago. Ecologists hope that the reintroduction of the Steppe Bison’s closest living relative, the Wood Bison, will increase the biodiversity of the region.

Sending wood bison to Russia also supports wood bison conservation. Establishing a genetically viable population in Russia increases the chance of species survival in case populations in North America are struck by wide spread disease or some other calamity.

The Sakha partnership is a unique conservation initiative, and an international success that is the result of many years of scientific and cultural cooperation. In working together in this way, Parks Canada and the Republic of Sakha of the Russian Federations are ensuring the survival and continuance of wood bison in the world. A fourth and final wood bison translocation to Russia is scheduled in spring 2020.

Translocations to Indigenous communities, Canada
Plains bison await transportation to an Indigenous community

Bison are an icon of Canada’s history. They were an integral part of the lives of Indigenous Peoples, and they still have an important role in the culture of Indigenous Peoples. Restoring bison to the landscape is an opportunity to renew cultural and historical connections.

Over the past decade, the park has worked closely with Indigenous communities that have applied to receive bison to bring the culturally significant animal back to their traditional rangeland, while also facilitating cultural or socio-economic opportunities. 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 nation that is interested in this opportunity is welcome to reach out to the park for more information.

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