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02/09/2017 11:46 am ET

Wild Bison Return To Canada’s Oldest National Park After More Than A Century

Authorities airlifted them into a remote valley in Banff National Park.

After more than 130 years, wild bison have returned to Canada’s oldest national park.

Humans had hunted the animal almost to extinction, and they had not been seen in the Banff National Park area since before it was established in 1885. Now, they’ve made a comeback, Parks Canada announced Monday.

Video captured the historic homecoming. Helicopters held aloft shipping containers to lower them into a remote valley in Banff on Feb. 1. The doors were opened and the 16 bison thundered out, running fast through the snow.

“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,” Canadian conservationist Harvey Locke told CBC.

Parks Canada said the reintroduction of wild bison to Banff was meticulously planned.

Authorities first selected the animals — most of them pregnant 2-year-olds — at Canada’s Elk Island National Park. They then quarantined the bison and screened them for disease.

In late January, the bison were loaded into shipping containers, modified specially to accommodate the animals. They were first transported by truck to a ranch near Banff before helicopters hoisted them into an enclosed pasture in the park itself.

The bison will be kept in the pasture for 16 months and will be closely monitored, Parks Canada said. The animals are expected to be released to roam freely in the park in the summer of 2018.

Parks Canada/Reuters
Bison in a handling facility at Elk Island National Park in Alberta, Canada, on Jan. 9. Wild bison were selected from the park’s healthy conservation herd to start a new journey in Banff National Park.

The reintroduction effort was part of a five-year pilot project to restore wild bison in Banff. Parks Canada called the project a “historic and cultural triumph.”

The restoration of bison to Banff will return a keystone species to the landscape, foster cultural reconnection, inspire discovery, and provide stewardship and learning opportunities,” the agency said on its website.

“In the long-term, by re-establishing a new wild population within its historical range in Banff National Park, this will be a key contribution to national and international bison conservation efforts.”

Reuters
Trucks loaded with custom shipping containers full of bison leave Elk Island National Park for the 250-mile trip to the staging area at the Ya Ha Tinda ranch just outside the Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada, on Jan. 31.

The American bison, North America’s largest mammal, had once been abundant across the continent.

Just 200 years ago, there were an estimated 30 to 60 million of them in the wild from Mexico to northern Canada.

But hunting in the 19th century drove the animal to the precipice of extinction.

In Canada, the plains bison ― one of two American bison subspecies ― became extinct in the wild in the 1880s.

The other subspecies, the wood bison, came dangerously close to also being wiped out. 

Handout/Reuters
Parks Canada resource conservation staff Saundi Norris and Dillon Watt oversee the bisons' return to Banff National Park in Alberta on Feb. 1.

The extinction crisis prompted the Canadian government, together with ranchers and conservationists, to implement various measures in an attempt to save the country’s wild bison. They introduced protective regulations including enacting hunting restrictions and establishing reintroduction programs like the recent Banff effort.

In 1906, a Montana rancher named Michel Pablo sold his sizeable plains bison herd to the Canadian government. The following year, his 400 or so bison were transported by rail to newly established Elk Island National Park. Most of the plains bison in Canada today are descendants of Pablo’s herd. 

Canada is now home to about 2,200 plains bison (the Banff animals are plains bison) and about 11,000 wood bison in the wild. according to the Wildlife Conservation Society. These numbers do not include domestic or commercial herds, which have far larger numbers. 

Both subspecies are still considered threatened in the wild in Canada. One of their greatest threats is insufficient population size to sustain long-term genetic integrity, the WCS said. Loss of habitat and disease are also areas of concern.  

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