Plains bison, a symbol of the west, were almost wiped out in the late 1800s by over hunting and indiscriminate slaughter. At one time, 30-60 million bison roamed North America, from Mexico to northern Canada. Large herds migrated and grazed across open grasslands and played a critical role in shaping grassland ecosystems. By 1888, no bison were left in the wild in Canada and only one herd remained in the wild within Yellowstone National Park in the United States.
Since 1905, WCS has been part of efforts to rescue bison from extinction through the American Bison Society, shipping bison from New York’s Bronx Zoo to the west to restore four populations. Thanks to these and other bison reintroductions, there are now about 2,200 plains bison and about 11,000 wood bison roaming wild in Canada.However, these still small numbers mean populations remain vulnerable to habitat loss, disease and with domesticated bison that have cattle genes.
One of the biggest factors limiting further recovery of bison is the loss of grasslands across the west grasslands are now one of Canada most endangered habitats.
What we are doing and why
We are working with our WCS colleagues from the western U.S., the American Bison Society and First Nations to develop new strategies for protecting and restoring bison. WCS Canada helped organize the 2016 American Bison Society meeting in Banff, Alberta to advance collaboration between scientists, land managers, First Nations and government.
Our goal is to continue to reintroduce bison to wild areas, and to work with First Nations to restore the central cultural role that bison have played for centuries for Indigenous people.
In 2005, WCS relaunched the American Bison Society (which had gone dormant in 1935) to reinvigorate efforts to recover bison, shifting the focus from staving off extinction to achieving ecological restoration of the Prairies. Today, WCS and ABS focus on restoring native Prairie ecosystems by returning bison to its historic range. This requires strong collaboration among many partners including Indigenous peoples, government agencies, NGOs, universities, ranchers, and industry. The ABS serves a vital convening role, bringing together this varied set of actors to work toward this common goal.
ABS helped to bring together more than a dozen First Nations to sign the Buffalo Treaty in 2014, which recognizes the critical cultural role bison play for Indigenous people and their commitment to helping to restore bison to their traditional lands. A number of additional First Nations in Canada and the U.S. have signed since and the annual treaty celebration is an important opportunity for First Nations Chiefs and Councillors to come together to discuss bison conservation. We will continue to work with Indigenous peoples on strategies to bring back bison.
In 2016, WCS co-hosted a week-long ABS conference and Buffalo Treaty 2nd year anniversary celebration in Banff. This unique conference was attended by over 200 bison enthusiasts to discuss the social and cultural dimensions of bison restoration, combined with a week of local events for the general public. The Buffalo Treaty Ceremony enabled First Nations Chiefs and Councillors from 21 Nations to come together to discuss bison conservation and restoration and attend ceremonial events. The Chiefs and Councillors passed five important resolutions that conveyed a powerful message about the importance of bison to Indigenous people in Canada and the U.S. One of these resolutions called for changing the name of Tunnel Mountain to Sacred Buffalo Guardian Mountain, and another called for First Nations’ support to change the status of bison in Alberta.
The 2018 Buffalo Treaty Celebration in Polson, Montana, was hosted by the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) of the Flathead Reservation (Montana). Bison are the portal through which stronger Indigenous relationships are forged – a vital element of the pathway towards Reconciliation.