Although there are those who have expressed concern about the bison moving out of the park and onto private or provincially managed land once they are released in 2018 (see “Bison beyond Banff’s boundaries” sidebar, page 37), many welcome the idea of the animal returning to the park to wander freely again. Leroy Little Bear is one of them.
The Blackfoot elder has been instrumental in building support for a return of wild plains bison to Alberta, and was a key player in the creation of the Northern Tribes Buffalo Treaty, an agreement that 10 First Nations from Alberta, British Columbia and Montana signed in 2014 and that is in part aimed at restoring the bison to the Northern Great Plains.
“Our culture is very closely tied to the buffalo, both for subsistence and spiritually,” says Little Bear. “Some of our sacred societies, such as the Buffalo Women’s Society and the Buffalo Horn Society, arise from and revolve around our relationship with the buffalo. So when the buffalo were almost exterminated, we became a whole lot less Blackfoot. The beliefs and the stories were still there, but the physical aspect was lost.”
Since then, plains bison have been reintroduced to Blackfoot territory in Montana and now Banff, and Little Bear believes the cultural reconnection has begun. “With this restoration,” he says, “the stories are being reaffirmed.”
The relationship between groups such as the Blackfoot and bison in Banff were literally forged in fire. “The vast majority of fires that shaped this landscape and the age structure of the forest is not due to lightning — it’s due to Indigenous burning,” says Heuer. Historically, Indigenous people ignited fires as they moved out of valleys for the winter. The fires promoted growth come spring, drawing bison and other large mammals that local First Nations hunted.
Parks Canada adopted this ancient practice in 2015, when it burned approximately 865 hectares of meadow in the Panther River Valley in preparation for the bison’s arrival. Over the next three years, an additional 635 hectares of meadow will be burned in the valley, conditions permitting. “We hope that what comes up next spring is a burst of succulent growth that is full of nutrients,” says Heuer. “What we’re doing with meadow-burning is actually mimicking an age-old human relationship not just with bison, but with an entire landscape.”