TOPICS > NewsHour Shares

How scientists brought bison back to Banff

February 28, 2017 at 6:15 PM EDT
In our NewsHour Shares moment of the day, bison have returned to Canada's Banff National Park after being wiped out more than a century ago. A biologist explains the efforts to help anchor a herd to its new home.
LISTENSEE PODCASTS

NewsHour shares web small logo

In our NewsHour Shares series, we show you things that caught our eye recently on the web. What about you? Leave your suggestions in the comments below, or tweet to @NewsHour using #NewsHourShares. We might share it on air.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Now to our NewsHour Shares, something that caught our eye, that might be of interest to you, too.

More than a century after they disappeared, bison have been reintroduced to Canada’s oldest national park. The operation took a decade of planning, but went off without a hitch earlier this month.

We reached out to the man in charge for insights on the project and where it goes from here.

KARSTEN HEUER, Banff National Park: My name is Karsten Heuer. And I am the bison reintroduction project manager for Banff National Park.

Banff is Canada’s first national park. It’s a very mountainous, rugged landscape. You know, it has glaciers and spectacular peaks, not unlike Glacier National Park in the U.S.

So, bison, plains bison particularly, were here over 140 years ago, before they went locally extinct, at the same time as bison went extinct across the Great Plains. And, obviously, with one big major player, Canada’s largest land mammal missing, we wanted to try to restore that animal onto the landscape.

Our seed herd was from Elk Island National Park. There’s 400 animals there, in a plains bison herd. They are probably the most genetically pure plains bison after Yellowstone in terms of their wildness.

We targeted 16 animals, the vast majority of which are young females, all of whom are pregnant, and then we brought in six young bulls as well. And so we have a breeding herd, because we have been told the single most important thing you can do to really make those animals anchor to their new home is to have them calve there successfully.

One of the logistical constraints we had to overcome in this translocation from Elk Island to Banff was the fact that there is no road access into the backcountry of Banff National Park.

Where we are staging this reintroduction, we could get fairly close with vehicles, you know, within 20 miles, but we couldn’t get right into the reintroduction zone.

So we opted to do some modifications on 10-foot-long shipping containers. They could be plucked off the back of these trucks one at a time and then flown into the backcountry. And that flight was new for everybody, the bison and us.

So, we had to do things like develop a parachute system with a helicopter company that would drag behind the containers and prevent them from spinning while they were in the air. And then the helicopters left, and it was nice and quiet and settled, and not a lot going on, and then the containers were all opened.

And that was a pretty magical moment, when these bisons stepped out and their hooves hit the ground, back in a place where they haven’t been in over 140 years.

We are actually going to feed and support these animals for the next 16 months, so they can calve twice and really anchor down into this place as their new home range, before we release them into the larger 1,200-square kilometer reintroduction zone.

As a biologist, to have the opportunity to work on a dream project where you are bringing back North America’s largest land mammals to Canada’s first national park, tremendous sense of accomplishment. The bigger human accomplishment is to have the foresight to actually make these kind of efforts unnecessary.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That is just extraordinary, you have to say.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Yes, what a lot of work.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Wow.

SHARE VIA TEXT