The bison you see in Elk Island National Park have relatives as far away as Scotland, Alaska and Russia.
The park, though just a short drive away for Edmontonians, has expanded its reach around the world, thanks to its reintegration and conservation program. Nearly every one of the creatures likely has some genealogical tie to the Elk Island bison.
Superintendent of Elk Island National Park, Dale Kirkland, said the work being done brings park staff a sense of pride.
“Parks Canada is a leader in bison conservation. It’s wonderful to see these plains bison back into national parks.”
LISTEN BELOW: Alberta born bison populating herds across the globe
Centuries ago, bison populations were decimated across North America after settlers began hunting them and destroying their habitat.
“Back in 1906, Elk Park, as it was known then, was Canada’s first wildlife preserve formed to protect elk. It was at a location just south of Lamont. It was a wee fenced area.
“Back in the early 1900s, the Canadian government was purchasing one of the last remaining wild herds of plains bison.”
The intent was to take them to an area near Wainwright known as Buffalo National Park. The bison were loaded up on a train in 1907, but at the time, the fences at the national park weren’t ready. Elk Park had a fence, so the bison were trucked to Elk Park, remaining there for two years.
In 1909, when the fence and facilities were ready in Buffalo National Park, the bison were rounded up and sent there.
“But, the bison were so popular with the Edmontonians back in the day, 30 to 50 of those plains bison remained in Elk Island National Park.
“It’s those bison that essentially turned into the population we see today and it’s the nursery herd for conservation initiatives around the world.”
During the past century, Elk Island National Park has successfully provided 2,500 bison to conservation initiatives across Canada and the world, including Indigenous communities.
“It is one of Parks Canada’s greatest success stories and Elk Island is the cornerstone of bison conservation. Without the park and the dedication of its staff, herds of both bison species wouldn’t thrive in Canada and around the world.”
“In the early 1920s, we sent bison to Scotland. More recently, we’ve sent 62 wood bison to Alaska in 2008.
“In 2006, 2011 and 2013 we sent a total of 93 wood bison to eastern Russia to help support the conservation of a bison herd there.”
In 2017, 16 Elk Island plains bison were chosen to be re-introduced to Banff National Park. It was the first time the animal had roamed the Banff back country in 140 years. The herd has since more than doubled.
“We’ve also worked with a number of Indigenous communities who have applied to receive bison from the park. We’re working to bring back this culturally significant animal back to their traditional range lands.”
“In 2016, 89 plains bison calves to the Blackfeet Nation in Montana. In 2018, we sent 25 wood bison to the Saulteaux First Nation near North Battleford and then in 2019 we sent 31 plains bison to the Flying Dust First Nation.”
At Elk Island, there are two subspecies of bison in the park.
“We have the plains bison, located north of Highway 16. South of Highway 16 we have wood bison. Typically the wood bison have a more northerly home-range compared to the plains, typically found in the southern plateau prairie region,” explained Kirkland.
The bison are kept separately, because they are two genetically different subspecies not meant to interbreed or mingle.
“We have quite an elaborate bison management program. We handle bison every two years. For example, we handle plains bison in the odds years, wood bison in the even years.”
Elk Island National Park is the only fenced national park in Canada.
“The bison can’t get out. As a result of having a lack of predators, we do see an increase in our population of bison over time. If we do not actively manage those bison, what we’re seeing is increasing pressures on grasslands and it impacts the overall ecological integrity of the park.”
Kirkland said the magic of bison is difficult to capture in words.
“Listening to them, watching them interact, seeing how the create habitat for other species in the park,” Kirkland said. “They offer up their fur for a bird’s nest. Creating wallows that will help support frogs, amphibians. They remind us of how connected we are to everything.”
Elk Island National Park is also home to black bears, beavers, moose, deer, geese, pelicans, ducks, garter snakes and more than 250 birds.