Calgary

Where to see the bison roam in Alberta, according to naturalist Brian Keating

Albertans wanting to see where the bison roam don’t have to travel too far — just about four hours from Calgary to Elk Island National Park, in fact.

Elk Island National Park home to hundreds of plains and wood bison

In Elk Island National Park, which is located about 40 kilometres east of Edmonton, the Bison Loop Road is a gravel path where naturalist Brian Keating recently caught sight of about 100 bison and 27 calves. (Photograph by Brian Keating)

Albertans wanting to see where the bison roam don't have to travel too far — just about four hours from Calgary, in fact.

In Elk Island National Park, which is located about 40 kilometres east of Edmonton, the Bison Loop Road is a gravel stretch where naturalist Brian Keating recently caught sight of about 100 bison and 27 calves.

They have been grazing there for over a century, Keating says — since the Canadian government purchased one of the last herds of bison from a rancher in Montana to save them from extinction.

Plains bison live in short grass in groups of up to 100,000 or more, and Keating says records estimate there were as many as 65 million across North America. (Brian Keating)

Over 700 wild bison were moved by train to the park between 1907 and 1912.

"They've been doing very well in that protected sanctuary, and it's worth noting that Elk Island is Canada's eighth smallest national park," Keating told The Homestretch on Monday.

"It's about 1/30th the size of Banff, but it's fully fenced, all the way around it, so it was the perfect place to release the bison."

Beards, capes, chaps

Keating consulted with Elk Island National Park's leading ecologist Jonathan DeMoor and learned that bison historically existed in the area, but were wiped out in the late 1800s — as they were in most places.

Today, the park manages two herds — about 500 plains bison located north of Highway 16, and the roughly 400 woods bison that are located south of of it.

Plains bison live in short grass in groups of up to 100,000 or more, and Keating said records estimate there were as many as 65 million across North America.

Those wanting to spot bison in Elk Island National Park will have the best luck in the morning on a cool day, Keating said. If it's winter, even better. (Photograph by Brian Keating)

"The plains bison are the ones that have the shaggy cape, and they've got a longer beard and a kind of a large bushy hairstyle on their head," Keating said.

"[And they] have the hairy legs that look like they're wearing chaps."

Wood bison, on the other hand, are about 25 per cent larger than the plains bison, and adapted for colder climates.

"They've got longer legs to allow them to get through the snow, and they're basically a darker animal," Keating said.

"[And] they've got kind of a more, I guess, trimmed beard."

Bison have the 'right of way'

Those wanting to spot bison in Elk Island National Park will have the best luck in the morning on a cool day, Keating said. If it's winter, even better.

And don't get too close — bison have the "right of way."

"Just be respectful of the bison when you're visiting them," Keating said. 

"They have been known to put the odd dent in the odd car, so the thing is to let them do what they want to do, and if you're on foot, don't get closer than 100 meters."

For more fascinating stories about Alberta's wildlife from naturalist Brian Keating, visit his website and check out these stories:

With files from The Homestretch

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