Plains bison were re-introduced to Grasslands National Park in December 2005, after 120 years of absence. Prior to European settlement, the prairies were home to tens of millions of free-roaming bison. Bison were both an ecological and cultural keystone species, shaping the grassland landscape through grazing and sustaining the Indigenous peoples that lived on the land. By the 1880's, the large herds that once roamed the Great Plains were driven to the brink of extinction by overhunting. The long process of re-introducing bison to the Canadian wild can be traced back to a few individuals that were captured and raised domestically across North America. In 2005, after consultation with stakeholders, neighbours and specialists, Grasslands National Park welcomed plains bison back to their home.
The initial herd, consisted of 71 bison, including 30 male calves, 30 female calves and 11 yearlings, all of which originated from Elk Island National Park. Elk Island has been a ‘seed source’ of Canadian plains bison for many years, as they have no record of cattle or wood bison gene introgression and are free from diseases of conservation concern. The bison were released into a 16.2 hectare (40 acre) holding facility when they first arrived, and remained there over the winter to allow time to adjust to their new surroundings. On May 24, 2006, the bison were released into the largest parcel of the West Block, which totals approximately 181 square kilometres (70 square miles). This area was chosen due to its large size, natural water source and access for park visitors. By taking into account the most recent estimates of vegetation production, current grazing prescriptions and strategies, visitor safety and bison handling operations, Grasslands National Park today manages a population of 400-500 bison. This target allows the park to prudently manage its herd according to the lowest biomass production predictable for the area (i.e. the poorest environmental conditions), while ensuring long-term retention of genetic diversity. Bison were initially reintroduced to restore the historic 'grazing regime' of large herbivores in a portion of the West Block of the park. Bison grazing, in combination with fire, creates a diverse mosaic of habitats, which can benefit many grassland species. Their habit of wallowing creates small bowl-like depressions of bare soil that fill with water during spring runoff or after heavy rains. These wallows can provide habitat for prairie plants that require moist soils and serve as a water reservoir for insects, which in turn feed other grassland species.
In the last few years, the Grasslands National Park bison program evolved and the park adhered to the bison management guidelines set by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Monitoring of population health (population size, sex and age structure, diseases, parasitism and mineral values), genetic variation, space use, grazing pressure and rangeland health are framed into an adaptive management program aimed to maintain a disease-free, genetically pure and diverse bison conservation herd. With its bison program, the park aims to fulfill ecological integrity targets and recovery actions identified for multiple Species at Risk while supporting bison conservation and restoration at the continental scale.
Bison are symbolic of the prairies and provide visitors a greater diversity of native species to view when visiting the park. Although bison are identified as the preferred large herbivore species, domestic grazers are also used in other sections of the park to achieve ecological objectives where bison are not suited. Grazing in the park will complement the stewardship activities on the surrounding ranch lands and provide habitats for a variety of wildlife species.
The re-introduction and management of bison into Grasslands National Park is an excellent example of the three pillars for our work at Parks Canada - protecting the natural and cultural resources, providing innovative educational opportunities and facilitating memorable experiences where visitors can connect with and enjoy this truly unique landscape, and offer the opportunity to establish, foster and enhance relationships and linkages with local stakeholders and Indigenous groups.
Please use caution when viewing bison in the park, please see our Visitor Safety information.
Parks Canada and Explore (explore.org) are teaming up to bring you live video feed of bison on the Canadian Prairie in Grasslands National Park. Cameras have been installed in the West Block of Grasslands National Park near a known watering hole and Black-Tailed Prairie Dog colony close to the Ecotour road. Viewers can go to the explore.org website and view the video feed from the comfort of their own homes or smartphones.
Did you know?
Bison were absent from this landscape for over 120 years. As of 2005, Bison roam free in the West Block of Grasslands National Park.
How to identify:
Male or female? Look at the horns for size and shape. Bulls grow larger, more robust horns and ‘horn buds’ are visible on the male calf within the month they are born.