Bison on the move

Grasslands National Park

The Return of the Bison to Wanuskewin Heritage Park


There’s no place on earth like Wanuskewin Heritage Park.

What we’re hoping that the visitors will take away is the power of partnership.

We’ve had this wonderful partnership with Parks Canada

where we’re able to bring the bison back which strengthens our culture.

When visitors come here they get to see indigenous culture in action,

they get to participate in curriculum programs around the bison

and have an authentic experience that makes them better human beings.

The bison were there for our sustenance.

They, historically, provided everything we needed.

The bison are the iconic animals of North America.

They had a near demise, extinction,

very close to extinction in the early 1870s

and by 1885 their population had gone from 26 or 30 million

down to less than a thousand.

So, that’s cataclysmic.

We move about 200 animals,

our goal is to keep the capacity of our herd between 3 and 500,

4 to 500 is optimal.

So, we send those animals on an order of preference

to other conservation herds, to indigenous groups,

to educational institutions and if we still have animals left over after that

they go to public auction.

But there are some practical implications here too.

When you go from 26 to 30 million

down to a thousand,

and then you start increasing the size of these herds

because of restoration efforts,

there is what is known as a genetic bottleneck.

Being able to increase genetic diversity means sharing animals,

like the arrangement we have with Grasslands

is one way of doing this.

I love the idea that Wanuskewin

would be a beacon,

a model for grassland restoration,

bison restoration and to celebrate first nation cultural history.

It’s a realization of the dream of elders from 40 years ago

and we’re so happy to have that realization back.

There was a prophecy that had once said

that when the bison come back, the culture comes back.

I think that’s how

people can work together.

That’s an example that we have to take care of each other

when things are down…

And then a better life.

Since they were reintroduced to Grasslands National Park in 2005, the plains bison herd thrived. High quality grasses, high birth rates, lack of disease, and virtually no predators have allowed the herd to grow. Parks Canada manages the herd to stay at an ideal size for the health of the bison as well as the prairie ecosystem in the portion of the Park in which they live.
Bison grazing is a key contributor to the health of the mixed-grass prairie ecosystem in the Park. With no predators, the number of bison increases steadily and the herd size must be managed to ensure the health of both the bison and the ecosystem. Every two years, the herd is assessed and a number of bison are removed. Animals to be removed are carefully chosen to imitate what would happen if natural predators were present, and to preserve the genetic health and social structure of the herd. Animals removed from the herd are made available to conservation organizations, Indigenous communities, zoos and display herds and research institutions.

In July 2019, Parks Canada and Wanuskewin agreed to the transfer of six adult plains bison from Grasslands National Park to Wanuskewin Heritage Park in Saskatoon. The bison arrived at Wanuskewin on December 6, 2019.

Besides Wanuskewin, in 2019, bison were also transferred from Grasslands National Park under an agreement with the University of Saskatchewan to support the Western College of Veterinary Medicine’s bison genome biobank program.

In working with organizations like Wanuskewin and the University of Saskatchewan, Parks Canada is contributing to the global survival and wellbeing of an iconic and majestic animal.

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