Returning to history in the Bow Valley: First forest fires and now bison?


Forest fires are making a comeback in Banff National Park. Can bison be far behind?

“Bison was one of the key reasons that people used to (set fire) in these mountains,” says Cliff White of Banff.

The former science manager for the national park has been pushing for a return of the big mammals to the mountains as part of the Bison Belong initiative.

“Why not lure the bison into the mountains?” White asks. “Because here it’s one giant pound. Once they pass Exshaw you might as well have shut the fridge door behind them. They are in.”

As a main source of meat for First Nations people, buffalo have been lured by generations of innovative hunters into the boxed-in trap that is the Bow Valley.

Each fall they would set fire to the old dry grasses, White says.

“If you ever wanted to know where the bison were going to go in any given year, you had to look at where the burning was done the fall before.”

But when hunting put an end to the massive bison herds in the 1860s, the natural order ended, too. Predators had to chase other food, and natives had to rely on treaty meat – the cow.

Burning died out in the face of strict opposition to wild fires, which threat-ened settlers and timber harvesters. The massive wildfire of 1910 roared up from the United States and along the Alberta foothills, devastating everything in its way. It raged up to Jasper and beyond.

Starting in the 1920s, airplanes were used to spot blazes from the air, and fighting fires has been a priority for the Alberta government ever since.

Fire towers replaced the planes and “rapattackers” that rappel down from helicopters replaced smoke jumpers.

Recently, parks managers have started controlled burning in Banff park again because fires were part of the natural order. And the animals they attracted deserve to be there, too.

The plan to return bison to the park would have them roam mostly on the north side of the valley, on the safe side of the fence along TransCanada Highway.

One day as many as 100 bison might find a home in the Bow Valley and at the north end of the park in the Red Deer River valley.

Ranchers, biologists, hunters and retired park wardens support this initiative. As do many shops, foundations and other businesses.

Besides, bison are made for the mountain ranges. They can survive the extreme temperatures of winter inside their warm cloaks. And their thick necks and big heads allow them to push snow out of the way as they forage for grasses.

Bison fit into the landscape along with bears and wolves, elk and other ungulates.

The reintroduction of bison as a wild species in the national park will add a historical element to the landscape.

Tourists love the bison, too, and the integrity of the park will improve.

“Parks is in the business of restoring, holistically, all ecosystems and maintaining the whole ecosystem,” White says.

And the Banff National Park management plan of 2010 agrees.

“Reintroduce a breeding population of the extirpated plains bison,” it suggests on page 38, “a keystone species that has been absent from the park since its establishment.”

Perhaps one day soon we will be able to see the shaggy forms of bison in Canada’s first national park. And history will once again come to life.

For more information on the plans to return plains bison to the park, visit


Source: Calgary Herald