Ranchers worry about returning bison to Banff

The major concern is that Plains bison established in Banff National Park will get out of the park and spread disease to cattle

LETHBRIDGE — A plan to release bison into Banff National Park next year has beef producers worried the great beasts could roam further than the park gates.

Thirty to 50 Plains bison from Elk Island National Park near Edmonton are moving to Banff, where they will be located on the northeast side of the Cascade Range away from railways and highways.

Parks Canada has promised wildlife fencing will be in place, and grazing areas have been burned to create forage for the herd.

Livestock producers are dubious.

Bison could become as great a problem as elk if they move outside the park and start raiding feed supplies, cereal crops and pastures, said rancher Rick Friesen of Vauxhall, Alta.

“I can see this going south,” said Friesen, who also sits on the Alberta Beef Producers board.

ABP was consulted about the release plans but has not heard anything for several years, even though it raised particular concerns about disease and animal containment, said manager Rich Smith.

“We didn’t see a really good plan to make sure they stay in the park,” he said.

“We want to keep the bison away from our cattle herds.”

Smith said ABP appreciates that bison are part of prairie history, but their habitat has changed in the last 100 years.

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“Conditions on the Prairies are very different, and we can’t recreate those conditions,” he said.

The province has also raised concerns, including the potential transmission of bovine tuberculosis and brucellosis, which could affect Alberta’s disease free status if infected bison come in contact with cattle.

“We are very concerned about the relocation of bison into Banff,” said Graham Statt, an assistant deputy minister with the provincial environment department.

Bison are permitted on some agricultural grazing leases, but they are defined as livestock with restrictions and guidelines as to where they can go, Statt told the Alberta Grazing Leaseholders Association’s annual meeting in Lethbridge Feb. 25.

He said Alberta has warned the federal government that the Banff bison will be handled as stray animals if they escape.

The provincial environment and agriculture departments monitor the health status of Wood bison in northern Alberta, where bovine tuberculosis and brucellosis infections are common. Particular attention has been paid to animals in Wood Buffalo National Park, where bison have roamed out of the area and come in contact with livestock.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency ruled that the Plains bison from Elk Island are disease-free and suitable for release to conservation herds.

A research paper funded by Parks Canada and conducted at the University of Montana said a herd of 600 to 1,000 animals could easily survive in the region, making it among the 10 largest Plains bison populations in North America.

The research is good news for the conservation group Bison Belong, which is a long-time supporter of animals in the park.

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Co-ordinator Marie-Eve Marchand said supporters are willing to start with a small herd.

“Parks Canada wants to start with a small number to make sure they can manage and make sure they understand the cycles of the bison in the park,” she said.

“It is a good thing to know Banff National Park can support bison conservation, and we finally have the numbers to prove it.”

The research paper, which was released Feb. 24, examined habitat, water supplies, slopes and snow pack to determine how many animals the region could support.

Banff National Park is recognized as historical range of Plains bison and has been identified as a potential site for reintroduction of a wild population.

“One day we hope bison could be a wild species in southern Alberta,” Marchand said.

The paper recommended monitoring the bison after their release to study their diet composition and preference as well as forage quality in the release area.

As well, it said the animals’ interactions with roads, trails and people should be investigated if they expand into populated areas to understand the potential for these activities to enhance or diminish bison habitat in Banff.

Marchand said there are no organized plans to relocate bison to other parks, but 90 head are moving to the Blackfeet Nation in Browning, Montana, April 4 from Elk Island National Park. No First Nations in Canada has indicated it is ready to start a conservation herd at this time, she added.

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Contact barbara.duckworth@producer.com