Sixteen bison will move to Banff National Park in February if Parks Canada decides to go ahead with reintroducing the species.
A public comment period ended Nov. 30, and the feedback will be a factor in the final decision, said Karsten Heuer, project officer at the park.
He told the Canadian Bison Association annual convention that the five-year, reversible pilot project would see the Plains bison placed in the park’s remote back country where there are lots of grassy meadows and archeological evidence has shown bison once lived.
They’ve been absent about 140 years.
However, part of Parks Canada’s mandate is to restore ecological integrity, and grazing bison would be an essential component of the ecosystem, Heuer said.
The reintroduction zone is grassy with frequent fire history and has enough good quality habitat for probably hundreds of bison year-round, he said.
“We’re going to start small and go slow,” he said.
The herd would be one of only three that will face the full impact of native predators.
The plan calls for the animals to be moved from Elk Island National Park near Edmonton to Banff in February, where they will be held in a soft release confined zone of 45 acres until June 2018. They will then be allowed to roam free in about one-fifth of the park’s land.
The first bison will include 12 bred two-year-old heifers and four two-year-old bulls. Heuer said keeping them in the confined zone for their first and second calving will help them establish their sense of place. They will also become accustomed to electric fences.
Once free, the bison will have access to about 1,200 sq. kilometres of land.
There are concerns that the bison will get out of the park or into widely used areas of it. Heuer said park staff and the province are working together to design fencing that will keep the bison in but let other wildlife through.
The nearest private lands are about 50 kilometres away from the herd site, while provincial grazing allotments are about 20 km away, he said.
“One of the challenges of our project is to try to get the bison to hone in and not have them wander too widely,” he said.
One-third of the animals will wear GPS and radio collars.
Heuer also said Parks Canada has committed to testing sick, dead or chemically immobilized animals for all diseases and will cull the herd “in the unlikely event that TB or brucellosis is detected.”
The project will be evaluated in 2022 to decide if long-term restoration of bison is feasible. Heuer said the animals will be removed if the answer is no. If the answer is yes, a plan with population targets will be developed.
“Our definition of success would be this element of returning a breeding population to the ecosystem,” he said.
It would also offer cultural reconnection for First Nations people.
Heuer said Parks Canada learned from a failed 1978 release in Jasper National Park when Wood bison were released in the back country, took off running and ended up near Grande Prairie, Alta.
Heuer said the project could be reversed if needed by capturing the herd, which by 2022 would be an estimated 60 animals.