2nd bison recaptured and relocated to Waterton, as calls increase for wildlife designation

Wild plains bison have not been properly designated by either the federal or provincial government since the species was introduced to Banff National Park in 2017, says the Alberta Wilderness Association

'They're not wildlife, they're not domesticated animals, they're basically nothing'

The second bison that wandered out of Banff was transported to a winter paddock in Waterton Lakes National Park Monday. (Banff Field Unit)

Thanks to a little help from a helicopter and a horse trailer, the second wild plains bison that wandered out of Banff National Park is alive, well — and living in Waterton Lakes National Park.

That was the news late Monday afternoon, when Bill Hunt, resource conservation manager with the park, revealed in a conference call that the second wandering plains bison had been captured and relocated.

"The large bull was successfully immobilized, and flown into a horse trailer, which allowed us to transport it to a bison paddock in Waterton Lakes National Park," Hunt said.

"The bull is in the winter pasture in that park, and is not visible to the public."

The news came days after two bison wandered out of Banff, resulting in one being euthanized Saturday.

"We had the necessary support in terms of helicopters and capture expertise, and we had slightly improved visibility, making the operation safer and more effective," Hunt added.

That wasn't the case Saturday, Hunt said, when the decision was made to euthanize the first bison.

"Wildfires burning in the immediate area and throughout Western Canada left limited availability of helicopters and smoke reduced visibility and makes telemetry more difficult. These factors also presented a risk to staff safety," he said.

He said the decision was made to relocate the second bison to Waterton rather than return it to Banff.

The herd have settled back into the reintroduction zone inside Banff National Park. (Banff Field Unit)

"Primarily, putting a bull in an area he had already shown he wants to leave was something we didn't want to do, in case he tried to leave again and convince others to go with him," he said. 

A third bull has separated from the herd and wandered about five kilometres away, but hasn't left the park boundaries. Hunt said they aren't concerned as the animal is remaining in an area they remain comfortable with.

The remaining members of the Banff herd remain well within park boundaries, he said.

"We are pleased that the remaining bison have settled back within the heart of the reintroduction zone in Banff National Park's backcountry and we will continue to monitor their behaviour and movements."

Legislative gap

The weekend incident prompted the Alberta Wilderness Association to point out a legislative gap that has left wild plains bison with no status, which they say needs to be addressed by the government.

"Wild plains bison are not recognized in Alberta," said Cliff Wallis, the secretary treasurer of the Alberta Wilderness Association.

"They have no status. They're not wildlife, they're not domesticated animals — they're basically nothing," he said.

"And so nothing means … if somebody wants to shoot them, they're allowed to."

Wallis said that political pressure from ranchers is keeping the federal government from designating wild plains bison an endangered species, even though scientists already have.

"It's a political decision, because of pushback from the ranching community, the livestock industry, and because of the confusion — because we now have domestic bison as well as the wild version," Wallis said. 

"They just don't know how to handle it, politically, legally, whatever. But we need a solution.

"There's a vacuum in our legislation," Wallis said.

Plains bison are considered wildlife in B.C. and Saskatchewan, but in Alberta are classified as livestock and not protected under the Alberta Wildlife Act.

Cliff Walllis, the secretary treasurer of the Alberta Wilderness Association, says the federal and provincial governments have to designate wild plains bison, after one was euthanized Saturday. (Audrey Neveau/Radio-Canada)

Bison outside protected areas

Wallis said that as a result, we can expect to see more incidents like the one that resulted in a bison being euthanized and another being relocated to Waterton.

"We have to start learning to live with these animals on the landscape, outside protected areas, but it's probably a reality we're going to have to live with just because of the political and social situation regarding wild bison," he said.

"We live with deer. We live with elk. Cattle get out of their fences as domesticated animals, but for some reason, we still vilify bison.

"There's been this tension for a long time between the ranching community and people who love wild animals."

Plains bison have not roamed free in southern Alberta for about 140 years, but some ranchers raise domestic bison, like the ones pictured here. (Molly Segal)

Not a threat

Wallis disagreed that the bison was a threat to the public, but added he could understand the rationale for thinking it was.

"That is wrong quite frankly," he said, adding people live with wild bison in the Hay-Zama Lakes and Ronald Lakes areas of Alberta.

"They come on the highway. They are a threat to public safety just like moose are — so are we going to kill all the moose? Or kill all the elk? No. We don't."

Wallis said parks staff were being overly cautious, but he said he understands why the decision was made and sympathizes with Parks Canada.

"They have some difficult decisions here, trying to keep the ranchers outside the park happy.

"They're trying to find that middle ground, in the absence of a good regulatory and policy framework."

Wallis said there are lessons to be taken from the experiences other places have had with reintroducing wild buffalo back into their environment.

"They're not awful animals. They play a really important role in the ecosystem that we want to get back into the ecosystem — and they play a really important role in the cultural and spiritual life of First Nations people."

With files from Radio-Canada's Audrey Neveu


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