How an Alberta First Nation is working to help ‘culturally significant’ Banff bison herd to suceed

Bison are seen in Banff National Park in Alberta in this undated handout image received April 22, 2022. An Indigenous-led report says relying on traditional knowledge could help to ensure the success of the bison in the park. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Parks Canada-K. Heuer

An Indigenous-led report says relying on traditional knowledge could help to ensure the success of bison that have been reintroduced in Banff National Park.

In 2017, Parks Canada released 16 bison in the northeast section of the park in Alberta as part of a five-year pilot project. The herd has since grown to more than 60 animals roaming over 1,200 square kilometres of the park’s backcountry.

Banff biologists are monitoring how the reintroduction has affected the environment, but the nearby Stoney Nakoda Nation decided it was also important to do a cultural assessment.

“We are dealing with a culturally important species within the Stoney traditional lands and that’s a big piece that’s missing from the reporting that was happening,” Bill Snow of the Stoney Tribal Administration said in an interview Friday.

Read more: Bison herd protected as wildlife on provincial land around Banff National Park

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The report was released earlier this month. It was funded by the Canadian Mountain Network, a non-profit that supports research on the resilience and health of Canada’s mountain people and places.

Snow, who’s the lead investigator, said a team from the Stoney Nakoda Nation worked with elders, knowledge keepers and youth to get a better understanding of bison habitat, behaviour, and practices from an Indigenous perspective.

“It was not only a learning process about bison, it was a learning process about ourselves as Indigenous people returning and going back to the traditional lands,” he said. “Being able to travel and to experience some of these areas has been really important … for our own cultural well-being.”

Snow said it has helped the Stoney Nakoda reconnect to their traditional lands, migration routes, camping sites, and hunting and gathering areas within Mini Rhpa Makoche, now known as Banff National Park.

Read more: Backcountry hike to see Banff bison a spiritual journey for group of Alberta women

The report, which has been shared with park officials, includes 11 recommendations to ensure the continued success of the reintroduction and for co-operative management of the bison herd.

The suggestions include continuing the program once the pilot project is finished, holding a ceremony with First Nations at the start of each new phase and allowing cultural monitoring fieldwork to continue. They also urge expansion of the reintroduction zone to include the rest of the park and allowing First Nations to harvest animals once the herd grows too large.

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The project is to be reviewed this year.

Wild bison disappeared from Banff National Park before it was created in 1885. They were reintroduced to determine whether bison could be a long-term fixture in the park.

Read more: Calgary woman offers Indigenous history tours: ‘I love that it’s something I can share’

Parks Canada said in a statement that it recognizes the connection between Indigenous culture and bison.

“During the project, Indigenous Peoples have shared their traditional knowledge of plains bison and participated in stewardship, management and celebration opportunities,” says the statement. “Parks Canada has also collaborated with Indigenous communities and organizations in various on-the-ground conservation activities.”

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The statement said Parks Canada supported the Stoney Nakoda study and will consider it in the pilot project’s final report.

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“Results from all engagement have and will inform future decisions regarding the feasibility of managing a wild bison herd in Banff National Park over the long term.”

The Stoney Nakoda report noted that projects such as the bison reintroduction are an important part of truth and reconciliation. It suggested traditional ecological knowledge can be used alongside western science for a more holistic approach to park management.

“At the end of the day, we are not just writing a report to write a report,” said Snow. “We want to change how bison management is done.”

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