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After More Than A Century, Bison Return To Canada's Oldest National Park

Wild bison destined for Banff National Park are prepared for loading and travel at Elk Island National Park's bison-handling facility in Alberta, Canada, on Jan. 31.
Johane Janelle/Parks Canada
Wild bison destined for Banff National Park are prepared for loading and travel at Elk Island National Park's bison-handling facility in Alberta, Canada, on Jan. 31.

For the first time in more than a century, plains bison are roaming in Canada's oldest national park. Banff National Park is hailing their return as a "historic and cultural triumph."

Helicopters lower the shipping containers carrying bison into a valley, in video posted on CBC. Then the doors of the containers swing open and bison charge into the park where they have deep historical roots.

"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 broadcaster.

Hunters pushed the species nearly to extinction, but the animals "were historically dominant grazers that helped shape the ecosystems of what is now Banff National Park," the park says. "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."

Local indigenous communities also have strong cultural and spiritual ties to the bison and have welcomed their reintroduction, according to the BBC.

The release of these 16 bison — most of them pregnant 2-year-olds — was painstakingly planned. After initial selection at Canada's Elk Island National Park, the group was quarantined and went through health tests.

Then they were transported by truck in shipping containers, and later airlifted by helicopter to the Banff's Panther Valley. They were "soft-released" into an enclosed pasture to allow for monitoring and for bonding with the new environment.

In 2018, park authorities plan to open the pasture gates and allow the animals to explore a larger area of about 1,200 square kilometers, where they can "interact with other native species, forage for food and fulfill their missing role in the ecosystem." In this area, they will be discouraged from wandering away by "natural barriers" and "short stretches of wildlife-friendly fencing."

Some area ranchers oppose the animals' re-entry into the park, according to the CBC: "They're worried the bison could escape, damage property or spread disease to livestock." Supporters of the reintroduction say it has been thoroughly planned.

This five-year pilot program is meant to "inform future decisions regarding restoring wild bison in Banff over the long-term," the park says.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.

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