This summer wild bison were reintroduced to Banff National Park for the first time in over a century. Geographers from the University of Calgary have been surveying the move intently, but they’re not just focusing on the bison. They’re also watching the impact the lumbering mammals might make on the ecosystem, in particular the park’s vegetation.
“We expect that the bison will have major impact on vegetation communities in the park,” says Dr. Greg McDermid, PhD, professor in the Department of Geography, who’s leading the study. “Prior to the bison being let loose we performed detailed vegetation surveys over the reintroduction zone. We can come back to the area over the years and accurately observe the impact the re-entering bison might make on these pastures.”
After having roamed freely in the area of Banff National Park for over 10,000 years, bison went missing from the park before it was established in 1885, having been hunted to near extinction.
Early last year, 16 bison were transported to a remote valley in Banff National Park in a move aimed at reestablishing a thriving herd. For over a year they lived in a 45-acre enclosure where they were monitored by Parks Canada. In that time a new generation of calves have been born and 26 bison were released into the park in late July.
While roaming freely, the bison are radio tagged and GPS monitored by Parks Canada staff.
“Bison are the largest land mammal in North America,” says Lucy Poley, a doctoral student in the Department of Geography who has worked closely with McDermid on this research project. “They wallow. They form herds. They eat what other animals don’t.”
McDermid says the absence of bison in the park over the past century has meant fewer meadows and fewer pastures. Bison graze. By putting bison back in Banff, he expect to see changes in the proportion of pastures to forests.