Course:CONS200/2023/First Nations cultural monitoring of plains bison in Banff National Park: Strategies and impact

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Plains bison (Bison bison bison)

Plains bison are known to have the most extensive historical range of any Indigenous ungulate species in North America[1]. Their importance ranges from culturally significant to ecologically beneficial. The latter can be attributed to the grazing habits and the other physical disturbances of Bison that create ecological heterogeneity at the landscape level[1]. Plains bison have been absent from Banff National Park (BNP) since before its establishment[1]. This is primarily because of overhunting. The reintroduction of this species is said to restore heterogeneity and biological diversity to BNP through the ungulate's natural processes[1]. The Cultural Monitoring of reintroduced bison in BNP brought together Traditional Knowledge and Western Science in the form of Ceremony, Planning, Elder Interviews, Fieldwork, Elder Reconnection, Report Writing and Outreach from the Stoney Nakoda Nations -- which consists of Bearspaw First Nation, Chiniki First Nations, and Wesley First Nation (all Treaty 7 signatories) --, Parks Canada and several Canadian universities[2].


BNP: Banff National Park

Browse: A collective term for the leaves, twigs and buds of woody plants[3].

Traditional Knowledge: A system that is a combination of traditional teachings, stories, oral histories, experiences and knowledge passed down through generations by Elders as a means to preserve and share Indigenous culture and values. It is holistic, intuitive, subjective and qualitative[4].

Ungulate: A hoofed animal

Western Science: A system that stems from Ancient Greece and Renaissance philosophy[4]. It relies heavily on the scientific method and is shared through academia and literature[4]. It is analytical, reductive, objective and quantitative[4].


Early distribution of Plains bison (dark brown) and Wood bison (medium brown) in North America based on paleontological, zoo-archaeological, written and oral historical accounts.


The area known as Banff National Park (BNP) is on traditional Treaty 7 territory. BNP is located in the Rocky Mountain region of Alberta, and was Canada’s first (and the world’s third) national park to be established in 1885[5].BNP was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984 as part of the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks[5].

BNP has three distinct ecoregions: the montane ecoregion, the subalpine ecoregion, and the alpine ecoregion[6].

Montane ecoregion

The smallest ecoregion in BNP (“3% of the total area”) that “occurs… between 1350 metres and 1500 metres [elevation] on north-facing slopes, rising to 1650 metres on south-facing slopes”[6]. Vegetation in this zone is comprised of “Douglas-fir, trembling aspen, and lodgepole pine”[6]. Grasslands occur on dry sites, and on wetter sites there are “white spruce, balsam poplar, and a shrub meadows”[6].

Subalpine ecoregion

“Lies between the montane and… alpine regions”[6]. The lower subalpine covers approximately “27% of the park”, and the upper subalpine makes up approximately “26% of the park”[6]. The lower subalpine is comprised of dense “lodgepole pine, Englemann spruce and subalpine fir” and the subalpine is “primarily forested by Englemann spruce and subalpine fir, interspersed with dwarf-shrub meadows”[6].

Alpine ecoregion

“Occurs above the treeline” and is around 44% of BNP[6]. Around 6”% of this area is covered by alpine meadows and shrubs”, with the rest being unvegetated[6].

Plains bison ecology

Ecology and impacts on landscape

Bison are divided into two subspecies: the Plains bison (Bison bison bison) and Wood bison (Bison bison athibascae), recognized by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) as morphologically and genetically distinct[7]. Plains bison are fast-grazers with a “large bite and rapid bite rates”[1]. Plains bison affect the abundances and distributions of other species in their ecosystems through their grazing habits as well as their physical interactions with their environment[1]. The “trampling, wallowing, rubbing and horning behaviours and deposition of nutrients”[1], and the herd movements of Plains bison through ecosystems can shape the landscape and affect the productivity and types of vegetation that grow[1]. Ungulate species grazing habits tend to increase the productivity of grassland[1]. “Grasses respond to defoliation by increasing resource allocation to shoot growth and thereby increasing above-ground production”[1]. Bison wallows have been assessed to change the diversity of vegetation in some landscapes, with vegetation growing within the wallows that do not grow anywhere else[8].

Range and diet

Plains bison diets consist of mainly herbaceous vegetation like grasses and shrubs, sometimes preferentially grazing in burned areas[1]. Bison have also been assessed to graze preferentially on browse even when grasses are more abundant in an area[1]. Due to their dietary preferences for grasses and sedges, they tend to remain around grasslands and meadows[1]. However, Plains bison can survive a wide range of environmental conditions, and “can persist in desert and cold sub-arctic winter conditions and in heavy snow-covered mountain valleys, grasslands and meadows”[1].


COSEWIC listed the Plains bison as threatened in 2004[7]. Plains bison are threatened by habitat scarcity due to human development (primarily agricultural) within their original range[1]. The lack of suitable habitat inhibits both population growth and the addition of new subpopulations, and the survival of the Plains bison is further threatened by “reductions in genetic diversity, disease, hybridization”, and lack of coherence in legislations concerning the Plains bison[1].

Plains bison significance for Indigenous Nations

For the Stoney Nakoda First Nations and other Indigenous groups who roamed the plains, the bison has always been a species of great importance[2]. Bison were and still are a vital component of cultural identity and spirituality for the Stoney Nakoda and other Indigenous groups in the plains[2]. Bison were in their clothes, tools, and food. The bison was and still is a part of the stories, songs, prayers and ceremonies of the Stoney Nakoda and other Indigenous groups from the plains[2]. Notably, “the skull of the bison is used in the Sacred Sun Dance”[2]. The Stoney Nakoda highly regard the bison as an important part of the landscape “since Time Immemorial”, and have played a crucially important role in the reintroduction and monitoring of the Plains bison in BNP[2].

Reintroduction to Banff National Park

In 2010, BNP committed Parks Canada to the reintroduction of Plains bison that consisted of two primary phases after being moved from Elk Island Provincial Park to the reintroduction zone[9]. Phase 1, termed soft release, spanned from 2017-2018[9]. Following was phase 2, free-roaming, spanning from 2018-2022[10]. The reintroduction plan consisted of a 5-year pilot phase beginning in 2017 with blessing ceremonies from Indigenous nations[10].


Plains bison have been absent from BNP since the 19th century[1]. This can be primarily attributed to over-hunting in the 1870s and 1880s that exterminated the ungulate species from the mountains that we now call BNP[9]. Reintroduction of wildlife is a popular method of restoring species to their historical range and in the case of the Plains bison, is said to promote heterogeneity and enrich natural processes in BNP[1]. It is also crucial to recognize the cultural connections and stewardship opportunities formed by the reintroduction of bison[10].

The Plains bison reintroduction pilot

To achieve a successful reintroduction, the first phase was the introduction of 6 male and 10 female bison into Banff's backcountry in 2017 to establish a soft-release[9]. The bison were held in an 18 ha soft-release pasture for 18 months before being allowed to roam freely[9]. During the first three months of the free-roaming period, the bison moved 13 km in a partially-constrained setting from their origin[9]. It was noted that interventions were required for the first three years of release and increased over time to keep the ungulates within 29 km of the release site as their range widened to the full reintroduction zone of 1,200 km2[9]. These constraints to bison movement were namely due to nearby human development[9].To discourage bison exploration outside of the reintroduction zone, terrain features such as mountain ridges were used alongside wildlife-friendly drift fences[10]. Bison exploration during the free-roaming phase diminished with time and the main bison population only travelled 257 km2 of the full 1,200 km2 reintroduction zone[10]. Out of the entire bison population, only 4 males explored outside of the acceptable range[10].

First Nations Integration and Monitoring

What is Cultural Monitoring?

Cultural Monitoring can have several meanings for different Indigenous cultures and communities. Some use it as a type of monitoring in archeological practices by protecting culturally significant sites while others use the term with a more environmental-cultural approach like in New Zealand[11][12]. In the case of the Cultural Monitoring of Plains bison in Banff national park, the term Cultural Monitoring is used with a Two-Eyed Seeing approach, combining both Indigenous Knowledge and Western Science[2].

Groups responsible for Cultural Monitoring

Flag of the Stoney Nakoda Nations

The Stoney Nakoda Nations (SSN) have been responsible for the Cultural Monitoring of Bison since their reintroduction to BNP. SSN consists of three Treaty 7 signatories the Chiniki First Nation, the Bearspaw First Nation and the Wesley First Nation who live west of Calgary, Alberta and east of BNP[2].

Current Cultural Monitoring practices

SSN's definition of Cultural Monitoring is the incorporation of Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) into identifying areas of priority for restoration and/or conservation while also recognizing environmental factors and considering local perspectives and knowledge[2]. TEK and Cultural Monitoring differ in the sense that TEK is integrating into existing research areas that have cultural importance whereas Cultural Monitoring helps government structures, scientists and the general public to understand Indigenous ways of knowing[2]. This process of Cultural Monitoring involved a 7-stage approach: "Ceremony, Planning, Elder Interviews, Fieldwork, Elders Reconnection, Final Report and Outreach" (p. 20)[2].


Since Time Immemorial, Indigenous people have had a strong connection with the "spirit world"[2]. The practice ceremony is vital within Traditional Knowledge and allows Indigenous communities to understand the phenomena in the natural world by connecting them to the "spirit world"[2]. Before undertaking a new project, a ceremony is held to inform the "spirit world" of the intent of the project and to ask for guidance in applying TEK throughout the project[2]. This connection with the "spirit world" holds cultural and spiritual significance to Indigenous communities, so establishing it is the first step in Cultural Monitoring[2].


This step included Indigenous and non-Indigenous groups meeting to discuss the proposed project, logistics and timelines while also learning about current studies in the area and management practices[2]. Some of the groups involved had never met to formally discuss wildlife, land or vegetative management and scopes varied as most Western Science projects plan for the short-term while Traditional Knowledge projects usually consider the long-term impacts of the project[2]. Long-term project impacts are always priorities for Elders as they have seen inequalities created by short-term perspectives[2]. Living in a balanced world is something Indigenous people have always valued and this is why Traditional Knowledge teachings are often derived and brought into planning processes[2].

A process in this stage was also included for Elders to share information which was reviewed before the Elder Interviews stage[2]. The planning part of Cultural Monitoring is critical for Elders, consultation officers, technicians and contractors to understand the environment and ecosystem(s) they were working in[2].

Elder Interviews

Elders have a crucial role in the "Cultural Monitoring" process and their importance cannot be devalued[2]. Elders hold lifetimes of experiences and knowledge that provide education, history, insight and reflection to projects[2]. In the case of the Bison Cultural Project, Elders shared their knowledge with the project technicians, the Bison Riders[2].

An important part of Traditional Knowledge is Oral Traditions, which is a form of knowledge Elders often hold[2]. Oral Traditions differ from the scientific method that Western Science relies on as Traditional Knowledge relies on oral traditions, ceremony, vision quests and dreams; in other words, Western Science extracts knowledge from nature and Traditional Knowledge accepts knowledge from nature[2].

The first step of this stage consisted of formally introducing Elders to the project and explaining it to them while also discussing what was learned in the planning step and showing them the study area[2]. Elders were invited to share their knowledge of the study area as well as any personal experiences and experiences of family and relatives but many of these experiences were not recorded or documented because recording was as per Elders' instructions[2].


Learning from “Nature’s Univeristy” was a common theme and practice among Stoney Technicians in the fieldwork step[2]. This step allowed Elders, Knowledge Keeps and technicians to reconnect with the surroundings of their territory and experience Nature’s University’s teachings firsthand[2].

Plains bison in Elk Island National Park, Alberta

Stoney Nakoda technicians' role was to observe and record data based on Traditional Knowledge and oral teachings while consultation officers and other technicians went to the project area to observe the characteristics of the landscape[2]. Observations made stemmed from Elder Interviews and the traditional stories and history of SSN[2]. Technicians also looked for cultural indicators like changes in vegetation, wildlife migration or habitat, climate, presence of minerals, mineral licks, water sources, and presence or absence of traditional medicine to name a few[2].

Elder Reconnection

The data collected by technicians was presented to Elders so that they could interpret what is happening on the land[2]. It is important that Elders hear the observations and experiences made in the field firsthand as it allows them to reflect and see how they connect with stories and traditional teachings[2]. These interpretations were then recorded and captured[2].

Report Writing

Capturing information from the previous 4 steps (Planning, Elder Interviews, Fieldwork and Elder Reconnection) was critical in report writing[2]. Conveying traditional teachings into a Traditional Knowledge worldview was a key aspect of this step[2]. After gathering information from Elders and Knowledge Keepers in the Elder Reconnection step, presenting the information, background and experiences in the report was crucial[2].

All the data and information gathered in the previous stages were put into a final report that outlines the outcomes, conclusions and recommendations of the project while also documenting the meetings, personnel and processes used throughout the project[2]. Additionally, a short video of the project is to be produced to try and share the cultural aspects of the project that could not be conveyed fully in a written form[2].


The outreach step is where Western Science and Traditional Knowledge differ greatly[2]. In Western Science knowledge is often accumulated for the sake of accumulating it[2]. In Traditional Knowledge, once knowledge has been acquired it becomes a large part of a person’s existence and purpose as the knowledge comes with responsibilities and roles to the tribe and the land[2].

In order to do this, presentations from the Stoney Consultation team about the project will be conducted to educate schools (elementary and post-secondary), workshops, environmental and conservation groups, and conferences about the Stoney Cultural Monitoring process and to bring Traditional Knowledge into communities[2].



The reintroduction pilot established various objectives that included supporting ecosystem integrity, enriching visitor experience, facilitating cultural connections, and providing learning and stewardship opportunities[13], which are all considered to have been achieved. The potential for any negative impacts of the bison were not observed, and there were no reports of property damage or threats to human safety. No other complaints were received from either visitors or stakeholders about the general presence of the bison inside of the Park. There were many recreational backcountry groups that often ventured into the reintroduction zone, though no reports of negative interactions with the animals were reported by these groups[13]. The bison had adapted relatively quickly to being introduced into the mountainous terrain and remained in good health while demonstrating healthy population growth rates. The bison had adapted relatively quickly to being introduced into the mountainous terrain and remained in good health while demonstrating healthy population growth rates. The population growth rate averaged 33% per year and natural mortality was less than 1% per year, resulting in the initial 16 translocated animals to reach a population size of 80 animals over the duration of the pilot. This type of growth particularly encourages species to recover when hundreds or even thousands of animals are required to insulate against genetic drift, extreme weather, and other forces of extinction[13]. There was significant involvement from multiple Indigenous nations that both established and strengthened community relationships throughout the duration of the pilot, involving annual project reports and progress updates. The introduction pilot further provided imperative opportunities to integrate these relationships with other government organizations and adjacent land managers through initiatives such as draft planning review and permit distribution[13].


The livestock industry had brought concern to the potential of bison carrying and transmitting certain diseases if they frequented designated grazing allotments. However, an extensive disease risk assessment that was conducted prior to the reintroduction pilot expressed the low probability of this happening[13]. There were some instances where bison had ventured beyond the reintroduction zone park boundary, three of which were onto livestock grazing allotments, but did not impact the livestock or cause any damages. There are few backcountry groups that offer commercially licensed horseback trips within part of the reintroduction zone and had concerns over the integration of horses with the bison. The operators of these groups reported that clients reported positive experiences in Red Deer Valley, though Cascade Valley has not been able to report on such because of the lack of bison in that region. The hunting outfitters that similarly operate just outside of the park and reintroduction zone are partly reliant on other wildlife moving freely across the park boundary[13]. This raised concerns regarding the potential negative impact associated with drift fencing that could be detrimental for sheep movements, but concluded as unproblematic because of the lack of evidence resulting from such low bison densities[13]. The singular exception to this was the dispersement of one bison that approached several horses within grazing allotments and had to be destroyed because of continued movements outside of the park boundary[13].

Next steps

Parks Canada is working with Indigenous Nations and stakeholders to continue monitoring and research of the Plains bison in BNP[13]. Parks Canada is committed to achieving reconciliation with Indigenous peoples through their continued partnership on the Plains bison reintroduction project[2]. The Indigenous Circle of Experts has recommended that Indigenous experts guide the substance and method of the project moving forward, because currently Western science, legislation and policy play a leading role in the management of BNP[2]. To further incorporate Indigenous experts and their Traditional Knowledge into the management of the project and the park would further ensure that the Stoney Nakoda people are reconnected to their ancestral land[2].


Overall, the 5 year pilot project to reintroduce Plains bison to BNP has been a success. The 16 Bison remained healthy and successfully reproduced, with their population growing to approximately 80 individuals[10]. The growth rate observed suggests that BNP is a feasible location for Plains bison to successfully establish and that the effects of genetic drift and catastrophic events will be minimized due to an expanding population size[10].


Please use the Wikipedia reference style. Provide a citation for every sentence, statement, thought, or bit of data not your own, giving the author, year, AND page. For dictionary references for English-language terms, I strongly recommend you use the Oxford English Dictionary. You can [1]reference foreign-language sources but please also provide translations into English in the reference list.

Note: Before writing your wiki article on the UBC Wiki, it may be helpful to review the tips in Wikipedia: Writing better articles.[14]

  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 1.12 1.13 1.14 1.15 1.16 1.17 1.18 Keery, Lorina (2019). "Evaluating the potential impacts of reintroduced plains bison (Bison bison bison) contained in a soft-release pasture in Banff National Park". Retrieved February 9, 2023.
  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 2.11 2.12 2.13 2.14 2.15 2.16 2.17 2.18 2.19 2.20 2.21 2.22 2.23 2.24 2.25 2.26 2.27 2.28 2.29 2.30 2.31 2.32 2.33 2.34 2.35 2.36 2.37 2.38 2.39 2.40 2.41 2.42 2.43 2.44 2.45 2.46 2.47 Stoney Nakoda Nations (2022). "Enhancing the Reintroduction of Plains Bison in Banff National Park Through Cultural Monitoring and Traditional Knowledge: Final Report and Recommendations" (PDF). Stoney Nakoda Nations.
  3. "How to identify deer browse in the woods".
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 Mazzocchi, Fulvio (May 2006). "Western science and traditional knowledge: Despite their variations, different forms of knowledge can learn from each other". EMBO Rep. 7 (5): 463–466 – via PubMed Central.
  5. 5.0 5.1 "Learn About Banff". Town of Banff. N/d. Retrieved February 24th, 2023. Check date values in: |access-date=, |date= (help)
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 6.5 6.6 6.7 6.8 Canada, Parks (2022). "Ecosystems and Habitat Banff National Park". Parks Canada. Retrieved February 24th, 2023. Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  7. 7.0 7.1 COSEWIC (2013). [ "COSEWIC assessment and status report on the Plains Bison Bison bison bison and the Wood Bison Bison bison athabascae in Canada"] Check |url= value (help). Retrieved March 30th, 2023. Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  8. MacMillan1 Pfeiffer2 Kaufman3, B.R.1 K.A.2 D.W.3 (2011). [ "Vegetation Responses to an Animal-generated Disturbance (Bison Wallows) in Tallgrass Prairie"] Check |url= value (help). The American Midland Naturalist. 165(1): 60–73 – via ProQuest.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 9.4 9.5 9.6 9.7 Zier-Vogel, Adam. [Bison (Bison bison bison) in Banff National Park. Diversity, 14(10), 883. "The first 3 years: Movements of reintroduced Plains Bison (Bison bison bison) in Banff National Park"] Check |url= value (help). Diversity. 14(10): 883.
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 10.4 10.5 10.6 10.7 Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named :3
  11. "What are the different types of monitoring?". n.d.
  12. Tadaki, Marc; Astwood, Jenna-Rose; Ataria, Jamie; Black, Morry; Clapcott, Joanna; Harmsworth, Garth; Kitson, Jane (March 2022). "Decolonising cultural environmental monitoring in Aotearoa New Zealand: Emerging risks with institutionalisation and how to navigate them". New Zealand Geographer. 78 (1): 37–50 – via Wiley Online Library.
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 13.3 13.4 13.5 13.6 13.7 13.8 "Report on the Plains Bison Reintroduction Pilot, 2017-2022". Parks Canada. Retrieved February 16th, 2023. Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  14. (2018). Writing better articles. [online] Available at: [Accessed 18 Jan. 2018].



Seekiefer (Pinus halepensis) 9months-fromtop.jpg
This conservation resource was created by Course:CONS200. It is shared under a CC-BY 4.0 International License.
  1. "About Us". n.d. Retrieved February 15, 2023.
  2. Parks Canada Agency (November, 2022). "Report on the Plains Bison Reintroducyion Pilot 2017-2022". Parks Canada. Check date values in: |date= (help)
  3. "The Buffalo: A Treaty of Cooperation, Renewal and Restoration". n.d.
  4. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named :2
  5. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named :1
  6. Freese, C.H. (2007). "Second chance for the Plains Bison". Biological Conservation. 136(2): 175–184.