Sixteen wild plains bison, most of them young and pregnant, have made an incredible journey back to their ancestral range in Banff National Park, reports Parks Canada.
Following years of deliberation over reintroducing the animals to Banff, where they once roamed by the millions, these 16 individuals were transported out of Elk Island National Park, a nature reserve located on the outskirts of Edmonton, Alberta, which has long been an enclave for wild bison. After an overnight stay at the at Ya Ha Tinda Ranch near Banff, the bison were airlifted into their new range within the park.
Before you read any further, it is imperative that you check out the chill on these airborne ungulates in their shipping containers. Apparently, wild bison are not particularly agitated flyers.
The bison were dropped off in Panther Valley near the town of Sundre on February 1. In a scene that somehow recalls both Jurassic Park and Free Willy, they burst forth from their shipping containers into their new home with energetic gusto (check it out at minute 2:08 of this video from the Calgary Herald).
These are the first wild bison to set hooves down in Banff National Park in well over a century, after their forebears were over-hunted nearly to the point of extinction during the 1800s. They don't have free range of the park at this point, and will remain in an enclosed pasture in order to acclimate to the new surroundings. Wildlife experts have tagged the herd and will closely monitor its behavior over the next year to make sure the reintroduction process continues smoothly.
From there, the plan is to introduce the animals—and their currently gestating calves—to a larger 1,200-square-kilometre range around June 2018, so that they can further integrate into the local ecosystem. Conservationists hope that this process will mark the first steps towards restoring the animals to their previous role as keystone species in Banff's wild habitats. The program follows the lead of several other bison reintroduction efforts across Rocky Mountains and North American prairies.
"By returning plains bison to Banff National Park, Parks Canada is taking an important step toward restoring the full diversity of species and natural processes to the park's ecosystems while providing new opportunities for Canadians and visitors to connect with the story of this iconic species," said Catherine McKenna, Canada's federal minister of environment and climate change, according to the Calgary Sun.
Not everyone is happy to see the bison return to Banff, criticizing the plan's $6 million price tag as exorbitant and expressing concerns about the effect of the bison on local livestock and agriculture. Whether those objections will be borne out by a spike in bison hijinx in the coming years remains to be seen, but for now, the new settlers are safely back home on the range.
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