Bison population stabilizes at Prince Albert National Park

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Matt Gardner
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The bison population in Prince Albert National Park has stabilized after declining for several years, according to a Parks Canada representative.

A resource conservation manager for P.A. National Park and Elk Island National Park, Norm Stolle said that the number of bison at the former currently ranges between 200 and 250.

By comparison, the latter is home to an estimated 400 plains bison and 300 wood bison.

“From 2008 down to about last year, year before, (the bison population in P.A. National Park) was on a continual decrease, and then between last year and this year it’s starting to stabilize a little bit,” Stolle said.

While he suspected that the cold winter had affected the population, specific numbers will have to wait until the necessary data is collected.

“This year with the winter, we really don’t know until the end of the year what it’s going to be like,” Stolle said.

Bison located at Prince Albert National Park can trace their roots to a previous generation of animals that the Saskatchewan government released into the Thunder Hills area north of the park in the 1960s.

Among the bison that were released, many moved south and ended up in the park, while others were re-located or removed from the population.

Most of the bison at P.A. National Park actually cross its boundaries. Grassland areas are their preferred habitat, with the bison generally living in the southwest corner of the park.

“They do also exit the park, usually in the late summer/early fall, and feed on some of the croplands outside the park … We’re working with landowners to try to help manage that population and reduce conflict with the ranchers and farmers adjacent to the park,” Stolle said.

Park officials monitor the bison population in a number of ways.

Aside from performing annual aerial surveys, they also use photo recognition to help determine numbers. Many bison wear collars that allow the park to track them.

To maintain genetic diversity among the herd, park officials seek to maintain a target population of at least 250. Stolle noted that the park has worked closely with the Saskatchewan government and local stakeholders to develop a bison management plan.

From 2008 down to about last year, year before, (the bison population in P.A. National Park) was on a continual decrease, and then between last year and this year it’s starting to stabilize a little bit. Norm Stolle

“Within that plan we are trying to target a population of between 250 and 400 animals, because there’s sort of a social carrying capacity as well,” he said. “It’s not all based on the ecological carrying capacity, and it’s how much conflict there is between bison and landowners and how much conflict they’re willing to accept.

“So we sort of set the target at the top end around 400 … at this time, and then based on how the animals respond and how much impact there is on people, that number may be adjusted down the road.”

Various factors can affect the bison population, from breeding patterns to wolf predation to human conflict that compels their removal. Stolle pointed to a 2008 anthrax outbreak that led to a drop in numbers.

The bison at P.A. National Park are considered a free-ranging herd, with the animals generally moving where they wish.

Park officials often use prescribed burning as a means of improving the bison habitat.

“Like usual, we’ll be doing the prescribed burning again this summer to try to improve the habitat,” Stolle said.

Similarly, the park plans to continue its research on the bison herd much as before.

“At this time we’re looking at … our predation rates of wolves on bison to see how many animals we’re losing through natural mortality, as well as with other species the wolves may be feeding on within the area,” Stolle said.

“So that’s kind of the work that’s going on at this time, and we’ll probably be doing some genetics work as well down the road, again looking at the viability.”

The presence of bison at the park, he noted, represents an added attraction for visitors.

“The fact that the population is here is a good opportunity for the public to hike in the park and see bison,” Stolle said. “It’s a big focus for the park.”

Organizations: Prince Albert

Geographic location: P.A. National Park, Saskatchewan, Elk Island National Park Prince Albert National Park Thunder Hills

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