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Bison return has real concerns

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Parks Canada recently released a proposal to reintroduce bison to restricted areas of Banff National Park. The detailed process outlines a multi-year program to establish a breeding herd of about 100 head. If the plan is successful bison will be further reintroduced into other areas of the park.

Stakeholder groups were consulted including the local ranching community which borders areas near where the bison would be released. Most groups were supportive, but there were some serious concerns expressed by area ranchers. Those concerns were the roaming of bison outside the park boundaries onto adjacent cattle grazing leases, the transmission of diseases from bison to cattle, and Parks Canada response to disease outbreaks.

The last point is of particular note as it refers to what can only be described as a lackadaisical and perhaps even obstructionist attitude that Parks Canada has shown in dealing with the ongoing diseased (mainly brucellosis) bison in and around Wood Buffalo National Park. Those bison have drifted southward, and have been found close to agricultural areas. The federal government has had at least 80 years to deal with that ongoing disease threat to the cattle industry, but to this day seems resistant to take any appropriate action. If that is its attitude towards dealing with free-roaming diseased bison, then the fears of ranchers near the proposed release area are serious indeed.

Park officials state that only disease-free bison from the Elk Island National Park herd will be released. Be that as it may, stuff happens and there is no provision in the proposal that reintroduced bison will all be destroyed if any disease is found in the new Banff herd. The Alberta cattle industry would probably feel better about Parks Canada intentions with this reintroduction proposal if they took some real action in dealing with the diseased bison that they already have in the Wood Buffalo Park area.

The other concern is that reintroduced bison would begin to roam outside Banff Park. The plan proposes to erect major fencing to prevent that from happening along with GPS collars on all the animals to keep tabs on them. None of that will stop a hungry herd of bison stampeding towards lush grazing land outside the boundaries. All of that is going to cost a lot of money — add in program managers, biologists and consultants and this project could easily cost millions.

Taxpayers should note that the plan is to restrict the bison to areas that are not readily accessible to the public. That’s not a way to get sympathy from citizens when they can’t see what they are paying for.

Ironically, Banff Park for almost 100 years had an enclosed bison paddock near the townsite that was a significant public attraction. It was similar to the existing one at Waterton National Park. However, in 1997 it was torn down by Banff Park officials for not being natural enough. Maybe so, but it was a tremendous venue for public education and goodwill about bison.

One suspects that this plan will be implemented, but it would sure be more fair to see it better address some of the legitimate concerns of the ranching community.

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