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Canada Reintroduces Bison To National Park For The First Time In 140 Years

When you covered the period of American history that saw settlers move westward, you likely read that bison were once abundant on the plains of the western states before they were nearly hunted into extinction.

Unfortunately, the animals didn't fare any better in Canada and as The Calgary Herald reported, the bison that once roamed Alberta's Banff National Park for 10,000 years were completely absent from the area for over a century.

But while it's unlikely that we'll see bison numbers rise to the 30 million that once existed before the over-hunting occurred, recent years have seen a small community of them return to the area for the first time in 140 years.

And from the sounds of things, it's starting to look like they never left.

In 2017, Parks Canada launched an ambitious five-year plan to fully reintroduce wild bison to Banff National Park.

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As the organization's website explained, this project began by relocating 16 of them from Elk Island National Park to an enclosure in Banff's eastern slopes.

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For the next year and a half, Parks Canada staff would closely monitor this group as how they fared in this period would indicate whether this strategy was viable at all.

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According to the CBC, 10 of these bison were pregnant when they arrived and the plan was to let them acclimate to the land over the course of two calving seasons.

When those turned out to be successful, it was time for the fence to come down.

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And so, the bison were allowed to freely roam a 745 square mile area in the park by the summer of 2018.

The Calgary Herald reported that the project cost the equivalent of $5 million U.S. dollars, but would have the effects of both reintroducing bison to their historic ecosystem and influencing that ecosystem with their ancient impact.

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And it seems that in the more than two years since this has occurred, the herd has been thriving.

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As the project's manager Karsten Heuer told the CBC, the herd's had a 38% yearly growth rate since the days when they were fenced off, which has allowed the original 16 bison to balloon into a community of 50. And over the next year, that number is expected to increase to 75.

In Heuer's words, "They've been free for over two years now. And their health is […] a really good measure of it is how well they're reproducing."

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When this project was first being executed, some Parks Canada staff were concerned that the bison wouldn't push into the mountainous areas where the vegetation was the most abundant.

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Yet as Heuer said, "But that's a pattern that's played out over the last three summers pretty consistently, that they did go up high and use the full extent of the mountain habitat that's available to them during the course of the year."

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And it seems that the other members of this ecosystem are also getting used to the bisons' presence.

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Although the CBC reported that one of the unfortunate aspects of this trend saw one of the calves taken away by wolves, this was considered an early sign of the bison taking on their ecological role.

More obviously positive developments include the fact that birds in the area are starting to favor their thick fur for their nests and the fact that grass has grown in richer and more lush after the bison grazed.

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And although Parks Canada staff are remaining in the area to make sure the bison don't leave the park, they're doing so as subtly as possible.

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As their "bison blog" explained, this is done by making simple and steady movements between the area where bison first notice them and the closer zone that compels them to move.

The idea is to make moving away from the area's boundary seem like the bison's idea.

In Heuer's words, "I wasn't sure, to be perfectly honest, how well they would fit into the landscape. But the first time I kind of came around the corner and saw them feeding in a shrub meadow and their backs in, you know, beautiful sort of reddish brown colour in the light, it was — it just totally seemed like it fit, like it was, it was made to happen here."

h/t: The Calgary Herald, CBC

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