Bison reintroduction plan controversial
Tuesday, Apr 01, 2014 06:00 am
Parks Canada’s draft plan to bring plains bison back to Banff National Park is a good one, according to a rancher who lives and works along the western edge of Prince Albert National Park, but it needs a stronger commitment to working with ranchers along the Eastern Slopes of the Rocky Mountains.
Gord Vaadeland, executive director of the Sturgeon River Plains Bison Stewards and a third-generation rancher, said last fall that building relationships with Eastern Slopes ranchers is key to ensuring the pilot project works: everything else – concerns over disease, roaming bison, broken fences and public safety – will fall away.
“I don’t think they are putting in enough significant effort into building relationships with folks on the Eastern Slopes,” Vaadeland said. “As a rancher, that is a gap I noticed. The park (Banff) needs to put effort into building relationships. There’s a lot of old wounds and before you risk creating any new wounds, you need to work on healing the old wounds and a presence here would be helpful to the long-term bison reintroduction.”
Part of that relationship building comes with having a Parks Canada employee who acts as a liason for ranchers in the region so that there is always “two boots on the ground with a person in them who is there to address (issues and concerns) on a regular basis and is available to people on the Eastern Slopes to talk to. To me, that is a gap. That is a gap (in the plan) and down the road if they fill that it will save them a lot of headaches and heartache.”
Parks Canada sought comments on the draft Plan for Reintroduction of Plains Bison in Banff National Park between Sept. 9 and Nov. 1.
Currently, Parks Canada is proposing a five-year pilot project to reintroduce 30 to 50 disease-free plains bison to the Panther-Dormer rivers region, a remote backcountry area of the park located along its eastern boundary.
Parks Canada intends to refine the proposal and then produce a detailed action plan. An environment impact analysis, including fence studies and a disease analysis, would also occur.
If the project goes ahead, the draft plan calls for an evaluation at the end of the five-year pilot project to decide if it should be expanded, scaled back or ended.
Erik Butters, a Municipal District of Bighorn councillor whose family has ranched in the Ghost River region since the 1930s, said the concern of his neighbours is that Parks Canada could compromise the health of cattle in the Eastern Slopes region by reintroducing bison.
“Nobody wants to be the local president of the I-am-against-it society, but at the same time there are some legitimate concerns about that and people have a right to be concerned about animal health and animals like bison wandering around knocking down fences,” Butters said. “Hopefully, the Parks people will have a very good plan and be prepared to have contingencies in place in case they do wander out.”
Butters said he thought cattle ranchers would be more likely to support Banff’s draft plan if the federal government would take decisive action to control disease in Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Alberta.
Between 1925 and 1928, the federal government shipped 6,673 plains bison from Buffalo National Park at Wainwright to Wood Buffalo. The plains bison infected the larger wood bison with bovine tuberculosis and brucellosis. The result is that disease continues to challenge federal and provincial land managers.
“We work very hard in the cattle industry to have a very good health standard and that quite frankly is challenged by the Wood Buffalo area because there are diseased bison up there and the government is not willing to deal with it. If they had showed some willingness to deal with it there, it would give me more comfort here.
“I understand the Elk Island herd is a clean herd, but the Parks people do have a black mark in regards to that situation.”
The draft plan, however, does adequately address disease concerns, according to Cormack Gates, a professor in the faculty of environmental design at the University of Calgary, who has been studying bison since 1983 and is a current IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List authority for American bison.
“I want to speak positively about the Banff proposal,” Gates said, “because it fits among the different conservation initiative projects. Bison are raised, in terms of the largest numbers, as captive, commercial propagation for the market. We’ve got probably approaching 500,000 animals now in that realm. There are organizations, nature conservancies and parks of various types that keep bison for the ecosystem services they provide and then there is a special category of bison conservation which refers to species conservation.”
The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species places plains bison at near threatened, as the total number of mature individuals is 11,250.
“In (the Banff) context the bison are functioning as a wild population subject to all of nature’s natural-selection forces. Those situations are relatively rare on the continent and what Banff National Park and its co-operators envision is restoring eventually, over time, a functioning wild population of bison, so it will be relatively unique.”
Keith Aune, bison co-ordinator of the Wildlife Conservation Society, meanwhile, said he understands resistance to the proposal, as reintroducing a free-ranging herd of bison is not easy work.
“I tell people in conservation we’ve done a lot of the easy stuff and what is left is all the hard stuff and that is what we are up against; whether it is restoring large predators, it’s living with large predators, it’s thinking about large landscapes, it’s protecting large chunks of ground, those are the hard things,” Aune said.
“Banff is in a suite of other opportunities, programs and projects playing out across North America. It’s a very good project and very doable. We are very supportive of it. There’s a lot of work to do, I wouldn’t want to fool anybody that there isn’t things to do, there’s a lot of work to do, but fundamentally, the Banff reintroduction is on a sound footing and has a good strong scientific basis.”
While Butters expressed cautious, tentative approval for the pilot project, the Alberta Fish and Game Association (AFGA) has called on the federal government to cancel it altogether.
In an email to the Rocky Mountain Outlook, Gordon Poirier, AFGA president, said the project should be cancelled based on the overall lack of public benefit, disease and the effect on Alberta’s wildlife.
“The local big game will be impacted when the fencing crosses their migration routes and will lead to winter forage shortages for them, not the bison, because (food) will be flown in for them. The fences will also cause increased predation as the fence interferes with the routes normally taken.”
He added bison could carry disease that has little effect on them, but is deadly to other ungulates. Also, he stated, wallowing bison could uncover and activate anthrax spores in the soil.
“A plan (that) costs millions, has no public benefit, has the possibility of spreading wildlife disease, and reducing hunting opportunities when the fence interferes with the migration routes and populations,” Poirier wrote.
“We have sent the Parks minister a letter outlining our concerns and have asked that this draft plan be cancelled.”
Thomas Ackerman, chair of the Bison Producers of Alberta and a bison rancher based near Lacombe, said his association supports the proposed project, as it could become an opportunity to showcase bison and the heritage that comes with having bison in its natural habitat.
Ackerman said the fencing part of the draft plan is problematic as bison are able to walk through most fences with ease. There needs to be procedures in place to manage bison that escape the park, but he added the plan is heading in the right direction.
From his experience and the experience of Bison Producers of Alberta members, Ackerman said escapes are rare. As long as bison have what they need, there is little need to roam, he said. Bison are less likely to wander if they have access to good forage and water.
“If he’s got everything he needs, he’s a very happy animal. He’s a herd animal. The chance of one animal escaping is basically nil,” Ackerman said. “If there’s no water or feed, if they go looking for it, no fence is going to keep them in.”
But, given the size of the proposed range and the low number of animals, Ackerman said he anticipates few problems with bison escaping onto private or provincial land.
The two drawbacks he saw in the draft plan are the remoteness of the proposed release location and the genetic diversity of the bison.
Kim Titchener, Bow Valley WildSmart program director, said during the initial stakeholder consultation process she urged Parks to include a robust education plan which she feels Parks is addressing in the plan.
“We think it is great to see public education and we’ll support that,” she said.
Titchener said from WildSmart’s perspective, bison offer another opportunity to educate the public on how to best live with wildlife, be it bison or bears.
“If they are educating the public that you can’t just get out of your car and walk up to (bison) that credo would lend itself to elk or grizzly bears,” Titchener said.
Colleen Campbell, a Canmore resident and naturalist, said the plan doesn’t address larger issues such as if this is the right time to undertake this project given that Parks Canada has overlooked or not addressed other concerns in the park.
“We do tend to be flavour of the month, year or decade and we throw lots of money at it and move on to something else. We don’t even know what species are in the park. There is no catalog or inventory of species in the park. There’s no bio survey of insects and plants in the park. There’s no public strategy about invasive weeds. We have a lot of other stuff to do,” she said.
Rob Alexander is a reporter with the Rocky Mountain Outlook