September 11, 2013 – The Calgary Herald. Story by Colette Derworiz.
Parks Canada has released a proposal to bring plains bison back to Banff National Park, starting with a five-year pilot project for up to 50 animals in the backcountry before expanding to a larger, more visible area.
The much-anticipated draft plan, released Monday, suggests a phased approach to return bison to their natural habitat in the Rocky Mountains.
“We want to start with a small, five-year pilot, putting somewhere between 30 to 50 animals into a fairly remote backcountry area in Banff and see how that works,” said Bill Hunt, manager of resource conservation with Banff National Park.
But it won’t happen for at least another year or two.
Officials are first asking for broader public input until Nov. 1.
It comes after nearly two years of talks with advocacy, tourism, educational, recreational and environmental groups, municipal and provincial governments and First Nations.
Concerns raised in the preliminary consultations ranged from the financial sustainability of the project to the ability of visitors to see the animals and the possibility bison could wander out of the park boundary or carry health diseases to nearby livestock.
Hunt said they have taken those concerns into account and will continue to refine the plan during the current round of consultations.
The draft plan, however, recommends the phased approach to bison reintroduction over five years.
Officials would start with a herd between 30 and 50 ear-tagged and collared bison from Elk Island National Park, where there have been no concerns about disease. The bison would arrive in mid-winter and be kept in a paddock for a few months, before being released in the spring into a 425-square kilometre area around the Panther and Dormer Rivers in the east-central portion of the park.
The plan notes the area would offer suitable habitat for bison and allows park officials to monitor the animal’s movements without negatively affecting other species.
It also includes some wire fencing to discourage the animals from moving on to provincial lands or transportation corridors.
“We are only going to put fencing in that we can prove is allowing other wildlife to pass in and out of the area,” said Hunt. “We’ve spent a huge amount of money in Banff recasting the north and south side of the highway and the last thing we want to do is build a Berlin Wall along the east slopes of Banff park.”
Any fences would only be used as a deterrent.
“Bison can get through just about any fence,” he said. “If they’re motivated because they don’t have enough food or resources, they will go anywhere they want to go.
“A key part of this program is to accept that and acknowledge that and make sure we have few enough bison and good enough forage that they are satisfied where they are.”
Hunt said officials will use small-scale prescribed fires to maintain and improve habitat quality for the bison.
Officials with a group advocating to bring bison back to Banff National Park called it a “first-class” plan.
“They’ve taken an appropriately thoughtful approach to how to go about it,” said Harvey Locke, a board member with the Eleanor Luxton Historical Foundation, which has been running a Bison Belong campaign. “One of the great things about Parks Canada is they’re one of the most knowledgeable bison management agencies in the world, so when they develop a plan, they can draw on over 100 years of experience of managing and reintroducing wild bison.