Where the buffalo roam again.

And now a feel-good story for a change. For the first time since the 19th century, when wild bison were hunted to near extinction, Parks Canada, Canada’s federal national parks agency, has released 16 adult bison, mostly pregnant females, into Banff National Park.
Banff is Canada’s oldest national park, having been established in the Rocky Mountains in 1885.

 ©2017 Parks Canada

©2017 Parks Canada

At 2,500 square miles (6,600 square kilometres), it remains one of the world’s most pristine wildlife areas close to a major city, just70 miles (110 kms) west of Calgary, Alberta. The terrain glaciers, ice fields, coniferous forest and — most importantly for the bison — seasonal grasslands. Resident mammals include grizzly bears, mountain lions, white-tailed deer, mule deer, elk and bighorn sheep.

This isn’t an empty-headed exercise in wishful thinking. Nor is it a rush job, the result of little forethought and next to no planning.

 ©2017 Parks Canada

©2017 Parks Canada

Despite Banff’s range and relative wildness, the park remains a sensitive ecosystem. Banff’s mountain passes and crested valleys experience harsh winters. Not every species survives, even with good intentions and modern-day science and technology. Just seven years ago, an avalanche is believed to have wiped out the then last-remaining family group of wild caribou.

Still, bison are tough and resilient.

The move is a throwback to a time when — it’s said — plains buffalo, as they’re more commonly known in the U.S., were so thick on the ground, they turned the plains black.

 ©2017 Parks Canada

©2017 Parks Canada

That’s hard to believe, of course, but hopes are high that with time and patience, a viable population may establish itself again. In their heyday, plains buffalo numbered some 30 million across the continent. The Alberta herds were long gone, though, by the time Banff was gazetted in 1885.

Reintroducing bison is liable to be less controversial to ranchers in the surrounding area than, say, reintroducing gray wolves to Yellowstone. 

The conservation team moved the bison from a protected herd in central Alberta, and transported them by truck and helicopter to the snowy passes that bisect Alberta and its western neighbour province, BC. The bison were tested for bacterial infection and have been cleared of any communicable diseases.

 ©2017 Parks Canada

©2017 Parks Canada

For now, they’re penned in a sprawling enclosure in Banff’s remote Panther Valley, far from the main tourist routes. The plan is to release them into the true wild by the summer of 2018, when they’ll be free to roam the 460 square miles (1,200 square kms) that encompass the Red Deer and Cascade River valleys.

If successful, project manager Karsten Heuer said, the Banff herd will be one of only four plains buffalo herds in North America that compete with other herbivores and their predators for survival.

The animals are not tame, or idle: The conservation team taped rubber hoses to the bisons’ horns to prevent them from injuring each other while in transit to their new home.

Fasten your seatbelts — this is about to get real.