CALGARY — For many Canadians, the modern bison brings to mind a tasty burger more than an image of herds running wild on the open plains.
But a new document by dozens of North American scientists says the massive mammals that are so tied to Canada’s past have a role to play in the country’s future.
Governments need to step up, argues the paper published by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and find space for the animals to roam free through vast areas of land.
“We’re on the brink of making some major breakthroughs in terms of re-establishing significant populations of bison,” says Cormack Gates, a University of Calgary professor who edited the new conservation guidelines for the group.
As many as 50 million bison roamed the North American plains in the early 19th century. But between 1840 and 1880 most were killed for meat and hides.
Now only about 31,000 of the animals — both the plains and wood bison — roam free in an area from northern Mexico up into Canada. That’s less than 10 per cent of the continental population, and most of those are commercial herds.
Gates argues that governments need to realize that bison are not the same as cattle and fit an important niche in the North American ecosystem.
“Bison do things in the wild that cattle can’t do in grazing systems.”
For instance, the animals create depressions in the ground, through behaviour called wallowing, that become habitats for other species. They were also part of the food chain and served as prey for animals such as wolves.
They are culturally important to aboriginals as well, Gates noted. Scientists have been working with aboriginal communities in Alaska and the Northwest Territories to have elders explain the significance the animals once had.
“The bison has been a part of human societies for the last 10,000 years on this continent,” says Gates.
In Canada, bison herds already exist in several parks, including Prince Albert and Grasslands national parks in Saskatchewan and Elk Island National Park in Alberta.
Gates says a large herd could potentially be introduced in the Rocky Mountains between Banff and Jasper national parks.
One group already working on this idea is the Eleanor Luxton Historical Foundation, which is dedicated to Banff’s nature, history and culture.
The bison are an integral part of all three, says trustee Harvey Locke.
“It’s the only large mammal missing from the system, and that’s just plain wrong,” he says.
Kevin Van Tighem, superintendant of Banff National Park, says different groups are looking into how the bison could be reintroduced to the area, although there’s no immediate plan in place.
He warned it’s not a simple proposition.
The animals often migrated along the foothills and onto the plains during the winter, something that wouldn’t be possible now due to human development.
If such an introduction could be achieved, it would make a big difference to the feel of the park and return a natural balance, he says.
“They are very important. When they’re missing, you’re aware of it.”
Gates says several repopulation attempts are already underway in other areas.
One reserve in northeastern Montana has been populated with a few hundred bison shipped down from Alberta.
The government of Saskatchewan has also made strides in recognizing the animal as a wildlife species, he says, but other governments need to follow suit.
The bison is a symbol of what went wrong more than a hundred years ago, but with effort it can also be emblematic of strides to make things right, says Locke.
“I think this animal is so deeply symbolic and people care about it from coast to coast,” he said.
“It’s such a symbol of how we messed it up in the 19th century and we can make it better in the 21st.”