Image Alt


Bison Conservation Efforts a (Small) Step in the Right Direction With Respect to Reconciliation

Trudeau’s federal government has stressed reconciliation with Indigenous peoples as a major theme of Canada’s 150th anniversary celebrations. While we agree that reconciliation should be an important and ongoing process, some of the methods federal bodies have employed call into question the depth of this commitment. One such example is the re-introduction of Plains Bison into Banff National Park by Parks Canada. While conservation efforts are critical to maintain biodiversity, small scale reintroduction projects without continual and wide-spread species and habitat protection yield unsatisfactory results that are little more than PR opportunities for the government. To strengthen conservation efforts and engage the process of reconciliation, Parks Canada should partner with the Stoney Nakoda First Nation and other Indigenous nations to utilize traditional knowledge systems as they apply to resource management and consider sustainable management practices that allow Indigenous peoples to re-engage in hunting practices which may be valuable to the communities.


On February 6, 2017, 16 Plains Bison were relocated from Elk Island National Park to the Panther Valley in Banff National Park. An article by the Calgary Herald reported the strategy employed for the reintroduction into the greater Banff National Park area:


For 16 months, the bison will remain in an enclosed pasture in the valley 40 kilometres north of Banff, and will be monitored by Parks Canada. In summer 2018, the herd will be released to explore a 1,200-square-kilometre zone in the Red Deer and Cascade river valleys where they will be free to interact with other native species and forage for food. Natural barriers and stretches of wildlife fencing will hopefully discourage the bison from leaving the zone.


In 2016, Robin Steenweg, Mark Hebblewhite, David Gummer, Brian Low, and Bill Hunt, published an article titled “Assessing Potential Habitat and Carrying Capacity for Reintroduction of Plains Bison (Bison bison bison) in Banff National Park” which explained the methodology and conclusions of a study they undertook to evaluate habitat quality and assess if there is sufficient habitat for a breeding population of Plains Bison in Banff National Park. The study concluded that when limits on carrying capacity is considered, it is likely that Banff National Park could support 600 to 1000 Plains Bison. If successful, this would be one of the largest 10 Plains Bison populations in North America.


The SARA registry indicates that prior to colonization by European settlers, there were likely thirty million bison across North America. In recent history, these numbers were decimated by hunting, disease and starvation caused by European settlers to North America. The Plains Bison have been all but erased from most of the land they once inhabited. Currently, there are approximately 600 000 to 720 000 Plains Bison in North America. However, more than 95% of these bison are being farmed for commercial purposes. The Plains Bison have been designated as threatened by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) but have not been designated a status under the Species at Risk Act (SARA).


The Canadian bison populations are fragmented into five herds (Elk Island National Park – Alberta, Pink Mountain – British Columbia, Prince Albert National Park – Saskatchewan, and Cold Lake/ Primrose Air Weapons Range – Saskatchewan, and Banff National Park – Alberta) and there are no corridors between herds. Habitat fragmentation usually acts as a limit to population growth because populations cannot interact and benefit from exchange of genetic resources in breeding.


In August 2016, members of the Stoney Nakoda First Nation held a special ceremony to welcome bison back into Banff National Park. In a statement to the Calgary Herald, Hank Snow, a councillor with the Wesley band explained that the land belongs to the bison, rather than to the park or to the Stoney Nakoda, and the Stoney Nakoda have a responsibility to prepare the way for the bison in order for them to stay on the land once they are returned to it. He also described the purpose of the ceremony: “[w]ith the ceremony, we are asking the spirit of the buffalo to consider coming back to its original territory.” To truly understand the relationship between the Stoney Nakoda and the bison in this region, it would be imperative to consider the Stoney Nakoda’s legal order and how it governs the interaction between the peoples and their bison relative. Indigenous legal orders often prescribe a stewardship relationship and resource management strategy based on sustainable use between peoples and their animal relatives, based on a millennia of experience interacting with the spirituality and ecology of the particular relative. It is through exercising these legal orders and carrying out the practices they prescribe, that Indigenous nations, peoples, and cultures may thrive lawfully within their own respective contexts. Thus, if one of the goals of these kinds of conservation efforts is truly reconciliation, Parks Canada must work with the Stoney Nakoda and other Indigenous nations and put responsibilities for stewardship in the hands of those who hold traditional knowledge on bison spirit and ecology.


As part of the reconciliation process, we challenge the federal government and institutions such as Parks Canada to set aside paternalistic notions of the goals and methods of achieving conservation and truly engage in partnership with Canada’s Indigenous peoples.

Andrea Lesperance is a Research Assistant with ABS Canada. Andrea is currently completing her Juris Doctor at the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Law. In 2014, Andrea graduated from the University of Windsor’s Faculty of Earth and Environmental Science with Honours. She has focused her academic scholarship on contemporary Indigenous issues and resource management. Andrea previously worked in community development within South African townships.