Banff's Bison Provide a Thrill
I’m a big fan of Banff’s Bison Reintroduction Project. When Parks Canada visionaries opened the gates of the soft-release pasture back in 2018, 31 plains bison walked into the remote Panther Valley and kicked off one of Canada’s most compelling conservation stories.
I knew the mechanics of the story pretty well. Free-ranging bison had been missing from Banff for more than 100 years. It was a pretty large absence. With adult bulls weighing in at more than 2000 pounds, plains bison (Bison bison bison – the most satisfying Latin name in taxonomy) are the largest land mammal in North America. But their influence goes well beyond size. Plains bison are a keystone species and ecosystem engineer whose presence on the landscape is expected to ripple up and down the Park’s ecosystem. From plants to predators, experts predict that bison will change everything about their new home. Banff is embarking on a grand natural experiment, much like the one that Yellowstone experienced back in the 1990s when they re-introduced grey wolves. It’s exciting!
What I didn’t realize is how personally exhilarating this would be. I didn’t know what it would feel like to encounter Banff’s burgeoning herd (now 66 wild bison) in the field. On foot. By myself. In the middle of nowhere. That’s what this blog post is about.
Researchers in our group have had the chance to visit the remote pastures of the bison reintroduction zone several times over the past few years. Lucy Poley did her PhD research there. Ian Perry did his MSc nearby. We’ve been exploring the use of drones to capture highly detailed vegetation information in the Park. We want to help establish the foundation for studies aimed at understanding how bison explore novel habitats, and then change them long-term.
I visited the reintroduction zone once again in August of 2021. I traveled with Parks personnel to two natural meadows (‘pastures’) in the upper Red Deer River valley where the bison had been spending a good chunk of their time. We had a lot of gear to carry, so there were horses. The horses carried everything so I got to walk on foot, unencumbered.
Pack horses are great, but they’re also a bit of a pain. Everything needs to be loaded just right and there are lots of logistics. We agreed that I would walk in first and the horses would follow. My logistics are minimal, but I’m pretty slow. The horses start late, but they’re pretty fast. It’s a good match.
I set off from the Park boundary near Ya Ha Tinda ranch and walked up the wild Red Deer river. The front-range scenery there is spectacular. It’s like the Bow valley without the highway. And the railway. And the people. It’s paradise.
I walked fast along a wide trail with no human footprints. Over five days at the height of summer, I encountered just one other person outside of our party. He also was alone.
I knew that I was likely to bump into the bison. Several of the animals in the herd have GPS collars, and the daily upload showed them hanging out close to the trail. I was keeping my eyes open.
I can tell you exactly what bedded-down bison in an open forest look like: brown lumps. Just like all the other brown lumps, but a bit hairier. By the time I realized that these brown lumps were bison, I was pretty much in the middle of them.
There was space to my right, but everywhere else around me were bison. Bedded-down, un-aware bison.
That’s when it struck me – how do you behave in a bison encounter? I’ve worked and played in bear country all my life, but this was a bit different. Should I alert the bison to my presence? Do I stand my ground? Do I back away slowly? Do I run for the hills (no, don’t do that)? There was a delicious moment of uncertainty in the encounter that drove home the point: this was a new kind of wildlife experience.
The moment didn’t last long. One by one the bison started to rouse. They caught my scent and began standing up. I stood calmly and waited to see what would happen. I knew from the Yellowstone videos that things could turn quickly, but I wanted to let the bison make the first move.
The herd behaviour started immediately. The large bison moved to the front, forming a barrier between the calves and this new intruder. The subadults had a restless lets-kick-his-ass vibe going on, but the calmer mature bison were running the show. It was obvious that I had to get off the path and give the herd a wide berth, and fortunately they were going to let me do it. There would be no rodeo dramatics.
So that’s what I did. I walked off into the space to my right, circled around the main herd, then got back on the trail to continue my journey.
I understand that the Banff herd didn’t always act so confidently. In the early days of the reintroduction, an encounter like this would often end up with the bison retreating. Parks personnel tell me that their most common sighting of bison in the early days was of them running away. To me, it seemed like Banff’s bison were starting to feel it.
Bison signs are starting to appear all over the valley. Bison dung punctuates the pastures. Tufts of bison wool are hanging in the bushes. The dense shrubs and grasses are starting to give way to bison trails and muddy wallows. Depressions on the landscape that you didn’t even realize were ancient bison wallows are starting to become re-activated. It's pretty magical.
That August day was my best wildlife encounter in years. Welcome back, plains bison. I didn’t realize how much you’ve been missed.
- Greg McDermid