• Photo: Greg Wills

Following a more than 100-year absence, wild plains bison may once again roam the grasslands near Alberta’s Rocky Mountains.

On Sept. 9, Parks Canada released a draft plan to reintroduce a herd of bison into Banff National Park.

The five-year pilot project involves the introduction of 30 to 50 animals into the park’s backcountry.

“They’ve been gone for well over 100 years now and we would like to bring back the balance and biodiversity that comes with restoring the animals to Banff,” said Bill Hunt, manager of resource conservation with the park.

But the reintroduction won’t happen for at least another year, Hunt said. The plan, released in January 2012, will remain open to public input until Nov. 1 this year.

The draft plan proposes a phased introduction of a small, young herd — made up of only yearlings and two-year-olds — into the Panther and Dormer river areas located in the east-central portion of the park. The herd would arrive at the park in mid-winter and be kept in a paddock for up to four months. The gates to the paddock would then open in early spring, allowing the herd to explore its 425-square-kilometre portion of the park.

“We know that they are a fairly nomadic species and so we are going to have to curtail those behaviors by providing good quality habitat,” said Hunt.

The proposal dictates the use of fences and controlled fires to improve habitat as well as ear-tags and GPS collar devices in order to monitor the animals’ whereabouts.

The reintroduction of North America’s largest land mammal will affect the park ecologically, said Hunt, as bison are known for creating and maintaining meadows and grasslands by grazing.

But the herd has more to offer than just grazing power.

The animals’ presence may also awaken a lost history with First Nations, as well as provide an improved visitor experience at the park, said Hunt.

Harvey Locke, a board member with the Eleanor Luxton Historical Foundation and a conservationist, echoes Hunt’s sentiments.

“The idea of bringing bison back to our oldest and most famous national park is very important for us as a culture,” he said.

The foundation has spearheaded a “bison belong” campaign for the past five years. Locke said the foundation has the utmost confidence in Parks Canada’s draft plan.

“Parks Canada is probably the organization with the most management experience of wild bison in the world,” said Locke. “They have done this kind of thing before.”

And as for the impact of reintroducing bison on other species in the park, Locke said not to worry.

“There will be some adjustment in the ecosystem,” he said. “But the animals evolved together. What’s weird is that the bison are missing.”