How the closure of a popular tourist attraction in Banff National Park led to the reincarnation of an ecosystem. Words :: Karsten Heuer.
Have you ever noticed how loss leads to renewal? The 1997 closure of Banff’s buffalo paddock is a good example. Spreading over approximately 30 hectares and surrounded by a 2.5-metre-high wire mesh fence, it held anywhere from ten to 107 captive bison during its century of operation. Conveniently located close to the town of Banff and right beside the Trans-Canada Highway, it was a favourite stopover for locals and tourists to gawk at North America’s largest land mammal from the comfort of their car. Where else in the park could you be guaranteed such a wildlife experience?
Except they weren’t wildlife. Despite the paddock’s popularity, questions about its appropriateness surfaced in the 1980s. How did a fenced enclosure align with Parks Canada’s mandate to maintain ecological integrity? How did it deepen peoples’ appreciation of nature?
I was studying biology at university when these questions were being asked but I didn’t pay any heed to them, not even after landing my first job as a Banff-based wildlife technician in 1995. As far as I was concerned, my work had nothing to do with the controversy over the buffalo paddock—I’d been hired to figure out why wolves weren’t travelling from the west of town, where elk numbers were low, to the east of town where elk were proliferating. It only took a few exhausting months of tracking wolves in the snow to realize the two issues were connected; a plug of human development surrounding town, including the fenced buffalo paddock, had spread so close to the cliffs that wolves and other wary wildlife could no longer squeeze through.
Being young and naive, I didn’t shy away from making strong recommendations in the report I submitted at the end of that first winter. Closing the Fairmont Banff Springs golf course was out of the question, I was soon told, but the park would look at my suggestions to restore a wildlife movement route on the north side of the highway. A flurry of activity ensued and, a year later, what came to be known as the Cascade wildlife corridor was free of the human structures that had previously riddled it.
The Banff airstrip was closed to all but emergency landings and the hangars removed; the Banff National Army Cadet Camp was relocated outside of the park; both the government horse barn and local pony club were dismantled and moved across the highway; and the fenced buffalo paddock was closed and rehabilitated.
Assisted by a second technician, I spent the next winter following and mapping how the wolves responded to the restoration of the corridor. To my surprise, they changed their behaviour immediately. Instead of the earlier dead end patterns of tracks in the snow, we now followed the distinctive four-toed prints through to the other side. The success of the restoration effort was irrefutable—in the span of a year, wolf passages had increased by 700 per cent!
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The story of renewal didn’t end there. The question of what to do with the captive bison after the paddock shut down spawned a whole other chapter. Given the deep history of wild bison previously roaming the Alberta mountains, there was a call to set the captives free. It was an intriguing idea, but unreasonable for Parks Canada to do without undertaking the proper risk assessments and public consultations. What they committed to instead was to study the feasibility of reintroducing wild bison sometime in the future.
Fast forward 20 years. In February 2017, after much study and public consultation, I found myself coordinating the translocation of 16 young plains bison from Elk Island National Park into the deep backcountry of Banff National Park. Five years later, the herd now numbers 80-plus animals and, after a 140-year absence, once again roam the remote northeastern reaches of the park. Anyone can go looking for them so long as they’re ready for a wilderness experience: many of the trails in the area are faint, signage is sparse, rivers are unbridged, and you need time (and a backcountry permit). It’s a minimum four-day backpack trip from the Lake Minnewanka trailhead near Banff and back again.
Some of the most magical moments of my adult life have been watching wild bison return to the backcountry. But I also miss the old buffalo paddock. Every circuit my family drove of the five-minute loop forged a powerful childhood memory: the guttural huff of enormous bulls as they sidled up to our van; the clouds of insects that lifted off their matted backs and streamed into our windows; the musky smell that wafted through the vents and eventually urged us to drive on.
As formative as they were, the loss of such moments is small compared to the waves of renewal that still ripple out in the wake of the paddock’s removal. Just last fall, for example, a wolf from the Bow Valley pack traversed the restored Cascade wildlife corridor so it could travel north and check out the reintroduced bison for the first time. Not much happened in that initial encounter—some introductory sniffing and posturing—but it rekindled something important: an ancient predator-prey dance that chiseled both species into the beautiful animals we see today.
It’s possible the reintroduced bison might someday wander into the Bow Valley. It might happen this year or ten years from now. Maybe it’ll happen tomorrow. If so, it won’t take them long to find the restored Cascade wildlife corridor and the overgrown meadows of the old buffalo paddock. I’ll drive by on the Trans-Canada Highway to try and catch a glimpse of them but, with the gravel loop road gone, I won’t be able to stop. Neither will the bison. With no fence to hold them, they’ll do what wild bison do: eat for a bit and move on.
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