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Bison in tallgrass prairie. Photo credit: WCS Canada.
National Bison Day was introduced to celebrate the American Bison. While initiated in the U.S., Bison Day is an opportunity to reflect on the past and future of conserving this iconic species here in Canada. To help mark this day, we asked Dan Kraus, WCS Canada’s new Director of National Conservation, some questions about bison and their conservation.
What is the status of bison in Canada?
It’s important to know that we have two sub-species of American Bison in Canada. When most people think about bison, they picture the Plains Bison that mostly inhabited the prairies. The Wood Bison is the largest land animal in North America. It is slightly larger and darker in colour than the Plains Bison and lives in the boreal forests of western Canada.
Both these bison sub-species were nearly wiped out. Today the Wood Bison is assessed as Special Concern by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) and the Plains Bison is assessed as Threatened.
What’s the history of Plains Bison conservation in Canada?
One hundred and thirty years ago there was not a single living wild Plains Bison left in Canada. The great herds that had shaped the ecology and cultures of the Great Plains for millennia had shrunk from over 30 million individuals to a few scattered survivors behind fences in Manitoba, Montana and Texas.
Some of the first wildlife conservation efforts in North America were to protect Plains Bison, including action by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). This included captive breeding efforts in the Bronx Zoo and the founding of the American Bison Society. Canada also played a key role in preventing their extinction. When the U.S. Congress turned down an opportunity to buy a herd that had been assembled by a Montana rancher, the Canadian government stepped in and in 1906 purchased 695 bison for the equivalent of over $5M in today’s dollars. The herd was shipped north to new national parks. Today, almost all the Plains Bison in Canada - including the animals recently introduced to Banff National Park in Alberta - are ancestors of that early conservation save.
Pulling bison back from the edge of extinction played a pivotal role in the birth of modern conservation. Their near disappearance provided clear evidence that human activity could cause extinction and but also that human actions could lead to wildlife recovery and created a framework that helped save other large mammals from extinction.
What are the key challenges in recovering bison in Canada?
In Canada, Plains Bison were assessed as Threatened by COSEWIC in 2004 and 2013, but they have not been added to Canada’s Species at Risk Act (SARA). As such, there is no federal recovery plan to coordinate recovery efforts. In contrast, Wood Bison was one of the first species put on Canada’s list of endangered wildlife back in 1978 and is protected under SARA.
But the key barrier to listing Plains Bison under SARA is social. Perceived competition for grazing lands and concerns about disease transmission, property damage, and human safety drive policies that don’t accommodate wild Plains Bison outside protected areas. Plains Bison are not even recognized as “wildlife” under Alberta’s Wildlife Act. Even within protected areas we still often manage Plains Bison like they are cattle. Most herds are fenced, and populations are manipulated by controlling sex ratios.
Why is recovery of bison important for other species?
Like beavers, bison engineer the landscape and have a positive impact on the diversity and abundance of many other species. Plains Bison increase the physical diversity of prairie grasslands, and in doing so increase the diversity of nesting birds. For example, Upland Sandpiper and Grasshopper Sparrow prefer the shortgrass left behind after intensive grazing. Bison wallows hold water and develop their own micro-ecosystems that are used by amphibians. Grassland birds use bison hair for building and insulating their nests and feed on the many insects that are attracted to bison dung. Bison are also a critical food source for carnivores and scavengers.
What can be done to help Plains Bison recover?
The current population of Plains Bison is a tiny fraction of what it once was. While it’s no longer likely to go extinct, there’s still a lot of work needed to recover wild bison in Canada.
Bison and the cultures of Indigenous Peoples on Canada’s prairies are inextricably linked in ways that are hard to comprehend for Western cultures. While the extermination of Plains Bison was once a means to disassemble Indigenous cultures, today the restoration of bison and Reconciliation go hand in hand. There are now 31 First Nations that have signed the Buffalo Treaty. This Treaty recognizes the critical role bison play as a cultural keystone species for Indigenous People and their commitment to restoring bison to their traditional lands.
It would also certainly help if Plains Bison were protected by Canada’s Species at Risk Act to help accelerate recovery efforts. Currently, there is no recovery plan and critical habitat has not been identified. While this is a barrier, Indigenous communities, protected areas, civil society, and other groups can still take actions to help recovery bison.
We need to keep bringing bison back to the places that will support them. This would involve returning Plains Bison to existing areas of native grassland that are still large and connected including Indigenous lands, Community Pastures, protected areas and even military bases. Bison could also be returned to marginal lands as an agent of restoration. Bison may not only help these lands to heal but provide the highest and best use of these lands from an economic perspective. These efforts would need to be supported by programs that encourage restoration of marginal croplands and degraded grasslands and compensate private landowners. These compensations could range from payments for property damage, to allocation of tags that allow them to charge for recreational hunting.
We will need a significant shift in our wildlife acceptance capacity before wild Plains Bison return to the landscape outside of protected areas. While there will certainly be challenges in having large wild animals moving around in working landscapes, there are way to accommodate this. If other countries can learn to live with elephants and tigers, I’m sure we can come up with ways here in Canada to better accommodate wild bison. Not only would this contribute to their conservation, but it will help to counter the shifting baseline of the acceptance of a prairie grassland devoid of wild bison as a natural ecosystem. For two centuries we have tried to eliminate and then manage and farm Plains Bison. We need a new cultural paradigm of wild Plains Bison as an essential part of natural and healthy prairie ecosystems.
Photo credits: Banner | Lila Tauzer © WCS Canada