Bison Return to Banff
Wild bison take their first steps in their new home in Banff National Park.
| Credit: Dan Rafla / © Parks Canada

A herd of 16 plains bison were reintroduced to Canada's oldest National Park last week.

The five-year process is meant to "return a native species to Banff National Park and create new opportunities to reconnect Canadians and visitors with this iconic animal," according to Parks Canada.

Bison Return to Banff
These bison relax in the bison handling facility at Elk Island National Park. Wild bison were selected from Elk Island National Park’s healthy conservation herd to start a new journey in Banff National Park.
| Credit: Cameron Johnson / © Parks Canada

It's been more than 130 years since a bison was spotted in Banff—well before the park was officially established in 1885. By bringing back the "grazers," park officials hope they will be able to bring a better balance to the park's ecosystem.

For 18 months, the small herd of bison will be kept in a pasture within the 740-square-mile "reintroduction zone" on the eastern slopes of Banff National Park. After that time, park rangers will open pasture gates and the bison will be permitted to roam about the entire area.

Bison Return to Banff
The beaver brings back the bison: trucks loaded with custom shipping containers full of bison leave Elk Island National Park for the 400 km trip to the staging area just outside the Banff National Park at the Ya Ha Tinda ranch.
| Credit: Johane Janelle / © Parks Canada

"This would be one of only four plains bison herds in North America that would be fully interacting with their predators and shaping the ecosystem as they did over a hundred years ago," Karsten Heuer, the bison reintroduction project manager, told The Guardian.

The bison come from Elk Island National Park and were fully screened for diseases before transfer. The herd includes 10 pregnant females and six young bulls.

The relocation process put the 16 animals in five large shipping containers and drove them 250 miles (via truck) across Alberta to Banff. For the last 25 miles of the journey, the shipping containers full of bison were attached to helicopters with a long cable and flown in. To prevent the animals from hurting each other in transit, workers put rubber hoses on each animal's horns.

Bison Return to Banff
Parks Canada resource conservation staff, Saundi Norris and Dillon Watt, watch as bison return to Banff National Park.
| Credit: Dan Rafla / © Parks Canada

The bison reintroduction coincides with Canada's 150th anniversary. Throughout 2017, access to all of Canada's national parks, including Banff, is free.

This is a historic moment and a perfect way to mark Canada's 150," Catherine McKenna, the country's minister of environment and climate change, said in a statement. "Not only are bison a keystone species and an icon of Canada's history, they are an integral part of the lives of indigenous peoples."