Where the Buffalo Roam… Again

Nov/Dec 2019: Canadian Wildlife Magazine

On a sunny day in August 2015, on the old Banff Indian Grounds near the bustling Banff townsite, with massive Cascade Mountain looming overhead, leaders of the Stoney Nakoda and Samson Cree First Nations gathered with other signatories of the Buffalo Treaty — marking their commitment to bring the buffalo back to landscapes that it hadn’t been in for more than a century and a half.

The location for this historic event was deeply symbolic. For thousands of years, First Nations congregated here to camp, trade and prepare for hunting forays. And to the south of the grounds sits diminutive Tunnel Mountain — just an easy peak to climb for some, but a sacred mountain for the Stoney Nakoda, who have formally requested changing its name to Sacred Buffalo Guardian Mountain, to honour their most revered animal instead of a train tunnel that was never actually built.

At the same time, in a remote section of Banff National Park some 60 kilometres past mountain ranges to the north, Parks Canada was kicking off its own historic bison restoration effort — a five-year, $6.4-million pilot project to bring the long-absent species back to the park. For a century, from 1897 to 1997, Parks Canada had kept some of the area’s last remaining bison close to the Banff Indian Grounds, protecting them in a 120-hectare paddock. North America’s largest land mammal, which had once dominated the western landscape with an estimated population of 30 million, had been relegated to a zoo-like display for tourists passing through.

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Wild Neighbours

May 2018: Canadian Wildlife Magazine

I stop my car on a windswept shoulder of the four-lane Trans Canada Highway a few kilometres west of where Alberta’s Bow and Kananaskis rivers converge – near Highway 40 to Kananaskis Country, and the exit to Highway 1A, the Bow Valley Trail. As a parade of cars and transport trucks speed by, I feel the ground shudder and shake. I park far off by the ditch and climb a sun-drenched hill. Looking east, there are rolling foothills that lead to Calgary an hour away; to the west, near and into the distance, there’s a seemingly impenetrable wall of mountains, carpeted green with spruce and pine, right up to jagged cliffs where trees no longer grow.

Everything gets pinched through a narrow gap between towering peaks – the converging highways, the towns and villages they connect, and the busy cross-country railway that transports goods to and from far-flung communities and ports on the coast. Wildlife habitat is wedged in here as well, strung along the gentler slopes, as animals try to follow their ancient pathways along the rivers.

The animals here, as everywhere, are constantly on the move, searching for food and mates and places to rear their young. That’s why the Alberta government is considering a wildlife overpass right where I’m standing – an area dubbed Bow Valley Gap by local conservationists – roughly 20 kilometres outside the Banff National Park gates. Proponents say the overpass would reduce the amount of wildlife-vehicle collisions that occur here, and would give roaming elk, wolves, grizzly bears and other animals safe passage across a highway that averages roughly 22,000 vehicles a day.

About 20,000 people live in the Bow Valley, mostly in Banff Townsite and nearby Canmore, and roughly four million tourists, nature lovers, hikers, skiers and back-country adventure seekers visit every year. “We’ve got two of the biggest protected areas in Alberta – Banff and Kananaskis – and a city of more than a million people an hour away,” says Jay Honeyman, a human wildlife conflict biologist for Alberta Environment and Parks. “It’s a very, very busy place – some say it’s pie-in-the-sky to think that wildlife would want to live here, but so far, they have.”

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