BANFF, Alta. — Marie-Eve Marchand and Tanealle Shade stand on a grassy knoll in Alberta’s Banff National Park hoping to catch a glimpse of the bison herd.
As they look at a small warden’s cabin, Marchand raises her binoculars to Divide Pass.
“They’re there, they’re there,” she says.
Marchand, who was part of the Bison Belong campaign to bring the animals back to Banff, looks a few more times to make sure she’s not imagining things, then passes the binoculars to Tanealle.
“I just froze and just a little tear ran down my face,” says Tanealle, 15. “I never thought I’d see the day when we had free-roaming buffalo.
The herd of wild plains bison, which was reintroduced in the park in 2017, has been free to roam in 1,200 square kilometres of backcountry on the park’s northeast side for the past year.
“They are incredibly adaptable,” says Karsten Heuer, manager of the park’s bison reintroduction project.
“For them to come back after a 140-plus year absence and integrate and adopt the landscape to the extent that they have has really been rewarding to witness.”
Most of the 36 animals have stuck together, other than three lone bulls that are off on their own.
Marchand puts her fingers to her ears — mimicking bison horns — and quietly says ”buffalo” to alert others in the group. They walk over and take turns with the binoculars. Others shed tears as they spot the herd, which included two new calves.
The group of women is one of the first to see the herd since they were brought back to Banff, but their trek was far from easy.
They met at the Bighorn campground on a Saturday evening to get organized for a week-long trip into the rugged backcountry.
They hitched a wagon ride to the park boundary with a local outfitter, hiked more than 65 kilometres, carried more than 20 kilograms of weight on their backs and crossed numerous creeks in their quest to find the bison.
All the while, they saw signs: a bison wallow, bison tracks on the trails, fresh bison dung.
Each of the women on the backcountry hike have a connection to bison — or buffalo, as they are traditionally known by Indigenous people.
Tanealle’s grandfather, Leroy Little Bear, is involved with the Buffalo Treaty, an agreement between First Nations in the United States and Canada to protect and restore bison herds in the wild.
Kansie Fox, an environmental protection manager, and Diandra Bruised Head, a climate change co-ordinator, work with the Blood Tribe or Kainai First Nation in southern Alberta.
Fox says they are working to bring buffalo back on the reservation as a way to connect Blackfoot people to their history.
“I just wanted to be a part of it to see if we could join forces in whatever we are trying to do in order to support the buffalo coming back,” she says.
It felt like a dream to see the buffalo in the Rockies, she says.
“We’re so used to seeing them out on the plains and to see them here in the mountains is so cool,” says Fox.
Bruised Head says she was looking for a place to make a tobacco offering when the bison were spotted.
“It left me speechless,” she says. “They are my relatives, they are my cousins, they are what connect me to my ancestors. It was almost sacred seeing them, even in the distance, letting them be wild.”
Glinis Buffalo, a member of the Samson Cree Nation south of Edmonton, says she’s always wanted to see buffalo in the wild.
“It took me a second to see them, but then when I spotted them, I actually just put the binoculars back down because I was actually kind of shocked,” she says. “I couldn’t even stare at them for more than a second.”
She says it was a beautiful sight to see these “tiny specks of brown” off in the distance.
“It made me think about when my ancestors, who would hunt, and that’s probably what they would see,” she says. “So this is how they felt when they spotted a herd of buffalo to go hunt.’”
Heuer says he’s heard from five different groups that have attempted to see the bison in the Banff backcountry.
“It’s not a super easy place to access,” he says. “Even if you do go back there, everything has to come together for you to actually see the animals. They are quite ghost-like a lot of the time, despite their size.
“It’s a pretty massive, complex landscape to find them in.”
Marchand says she had her doubts about whether the group would see the bison, but she had a good feeling.
“I can’t believe how lucky we were,” she says. “But we believed it — and we did it.”