In July of 2018, a herd of 31 bison were reintroduced to Banff National Park in Canada as part of the five-year Banff Bison Reintroduction Project. Bison had been absent from this region of Canada for over a century, making the return of the wild plains animal an incredible, historic triumph. Now, the national park is celebrating a bison baby boom as the herd has expanded to 63 total bison, with 16 newborn calves this year.
Bison: A Keystone Species
A “keystone species” is an organism that plays an essential role in the function of the ecosystem they are naturally part of. Without keystone species, the ecosystems we know today would be drastically different, and some might not even exist at all.
Bison fulfill their role as keystone species by creating and maintaining the habitat on the Great Plains. As foraging and grazing animals, bison will aerate the soil with their hooves as they search for food, which is greatly beneficial to plant growth. They also disperse native seeds as they roam and eat, allowing a balanced population of native plants. This, in turn, benefits the other animals and insects that depend on these local flora and fauna as part of their nutrition.
Baby Boom in Banff
Conservationists across the Great Plains have focused their efforts on expanding the bison population, as they are essential to the continued existence of an already fragile ecosystem. The herd in Banff National Park has seen an annual growth rate of “upwards of 30 per cent” according to Saundi Stevens, resource management officer for the park.
This calving season, the park observed an incredible 16 new additions to the herd, all of whom appear to be doing well. “They’ve been incredibly healthy and they’re faring really well in their new habitat,” Stevens continued. “At this young age, they’re just lively. They’re frolicking and nursing and playing…And what’s most amazing is they’re traveling and keeping up with the main herd.”
Keeping the Herd Safe
Wolves are a natural predator of bison, and are part of the balanced ecosystem. However, since bison have not been present in this area for almost 150 years, the wolves aren’t used to seeing the bison as prey. “We’re seeing mutual curiosity between bison and wolves,” Stevens explained. “…but right now I don’t think the wolves have quite discovered what potential prey source the bison can be.”
Conservationists at the park believe the herd’s high growth rate is due, in part, to this lack of natural population thinning. So far, there have been no deaths of mature bison, and only one death of a calf is believed to have been caused by a wolf attack. While the herd remains small in population and the reintroduction project is still underway, the conservationists will continue to keep a close eye on wolf interactions.
The herd is still contained within a 1,200-square-kilometre reintroduction zone, where they are able to roam freely and graze on grass, sedges and willow bushes. Stevens remarked that this herd moves around quickly, and will likely travel to high alpine areas this summer where “vegetation growth is far more succulent and palatable and nutritious to the bison.”
Each plant and animal species plays an incredibly significant role in our ecosystems. Without the balance that nature has designed to maintain these areas, we will begin to see incredible losses to our natural environments. To learn more, check out this story about 12 wildlife restoration projects that are being funded by the UK!Whizzco