Last week, Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada, was reintroduced to wild plains bison for the first time in over a century. Sixteen bison were ferried to an enclosed pasture in Canada's oldest national park, the first time the species had roamed the region since before the park was established in 1885.
The plains bison is a subspecies of the American bison, which is commonly – and incorrectly – referred to as a buffalo. The creatures used to roam in massive herds across North America, but populations in the wild almost vanished during the 19th century.
The bison has made something of a comeback in recent decades, though it will likely never reach the levels that it had at its peak. But for many conservationists, the reintroduction of wild bison to Banff is an important step in the right direction, restoring an iconic part of North American history to its rightful ecological place.
A reintroduction of a species into a historic habitat like this has been pulled off successfully before, says William Lynn, a research scientist at George Perkins Marsh Institute at Clark University, but it will take time and a great deal of effort to restore populations of bison to a sustainable level in the wild.
"Reintroduction needs to be tailored to the needs of each species," he tells The Christian Science Monitor in an email.
One difficulty with the Banff reintroduction is the sheer size of the animals involved. Bison are the largest terrestrial animal in North America, often standing over six feet tall, with adult males weighing over 2,000 pounds. The new Canadian herd, which consists mostly of young, pregnant females, had to be moved in shipping containers from Elk Island National Park to Banff by truck. From there, large helicopters lifted the containers to the eastern slopes of the park to the closed release area, which is inaccessible by road.
For the next 16 months, the bison will be kept under close watch via radio tags before being released to an open, 500-square-mile area, where they will re-enter the natural ecosystem.
"This is a great day for Banff National Park. It's a great day for Canada and frankly, it's one of the great days for wildlife conservation in the history of North America," conservationist Harvey Locke told the CBC.
The release comes as Canadians prepare to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Canada's formation as an independent country later this year, according to a statement from Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna.
"This is a historic moment and a perfect way to mark Canada's 150," she said. "Not only are bison a keystone species and an icon of Canada’s history, they are an integral part of the lives of Indigenous Peoples."
Many indigenous plains tribes used bison as a primary food source, and some continue to have a strong spiritual connection with the creatures. But during westward expansion, bison hunting became part of a way to remove native American resistance as settlers moved west across US territory.
Railroad extension and the development of bison-hunting rifles were both "encouraged as part of an explicit US foreign policy to starve the plains Indians (First Nations) into submission during the American Indian Wars, while at the same time facilitating Euro-American colonization of depopulated lands," says Dr. Lynn. "Recall too that removing wildlife for domestic animals was regarded as a land improvement that accompanied civilization."
During the 1500s, there were an estimated 30 million bison living in North America. As settlers pushed forward, however, buffalo hides and bones became valuable commercial items in the East, driving increasingly large hunting expeditions that eliminated whole herds. By 1884, only around 325 wild bison lived in the US, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
The 20th century saw their numbers start to rebound, as conservationists began to breed bison and federally protected land was set aside for the species. Now, 500,000 bison or bison hybrids, the result of commercial breeding with cattle, are found across the continent. Of these, only about 5,000 live outside of fences, a far cry from the thundering herds of the past.
The animals released at Banff are genetically pure bison, and are free of any contagious diseases that could spread to cattle, a concern raised by some ranchers in the area prior to the reintroduction.
Lynn says that many US ranchers oppose bison conservation efforts due to concerns about losing access to the federal lands where cattle currently graze. But for many conservationists, restoring wild populations of once-endangered animals like this is worth the potential economic cost.
"Restoring wild bison … is the righting of wrong that was caused in the 19th century when we almost eliminated wild bison as a species," said Mr. Locke. "Banff Park was involved in saving the species from extinction 100 years ago, and today it's involved in restoring this species as part of the landscape, as a wild animal, and that is really exciting."