Bison Conservation Efforts a (Small) Step in the Right Direction With Respect to Reconciliation

Canada’s new federal government has stressed reconciliation with Indigenous peoples as a major theme of Canada’s 150th anniversary celebrations. Yet the federal government’s approach to this commitment has left some Indigenous communities feeling frustrated. A recent example is the re-introduction of Plains Bison into Banff National Park by Parks Canada. While the reintroduction of bison and other conservation efforts are critical to preserving biodiversity in Canada, the government has put in place a resource management plan that fails to adequately account or the traditional hunting practices of the Stoney Nakoda First Nation and other local Indigenous nations, who have used traditional knowledge of the bison and their grazing lands to sustainably hunt the animals for centuries.


Reintroduction of Plains Bison into Banff National Park is part of a broader conservation effort to reintroduce the species into North America. On February 6, 2017, 16 Plains Bison were relocated from a population contained within Elk Island National Park to the Panther Valley in Banff National Park. Parks Canada plans to monitor the bison in an endlosed pasture 40 km north of Banff for 16 months before releasing the herd to roam a 1,200 square km area of the Red Deer and Cascade river valleys within the park.


The Stoney Nakoda First Nation have historically been “excluded” from Banff National Park. Members were forbidden to hunt in the park soon after its creation in 1887 and strict enforcement followed. Members of the Stoney Nakoda First Nation would be ticketed by Parks Canada for collecting medicines or engaging in “traditional walk abouts” in the park without paying admission. The Stoney Nakoda were “welcomed back” to Banff National Park in 2010 and issued free lifetime park passes in 2012 as the result of a negotiated memorandum of agreement between the nation and Parks Canada.


Historically, under the guise of conservation efforts, interests of settler trophy hunters have been protected at the expense of Indigenous sustenance hunters. At least one study has suggested that the historical exclusion of Indigenous peoples from national parks in Canada and the USA was for the purpose of game conservation, sport hunting, tourism and assimilation, rather than conservation of national parks as an uninhabited wilderness. While the Stoney Nakoda hunted for sustenance and to utilize animals for food and other products, sport hunters prided themselves on hunting for nothing but sport and trophies. Settler sport hunters wanted to exclude Indigenous sustenance hunters from swaths of land so that they could engage in sport hunting. Hunting regulations were put in place to ban Indigenous peoples from national parks throughout Canada. Thus, regulation on hunting in the park privileged settler hunters and excluded Indigenous sustenance hunters in a purposeful and calculated manner.


Conservation practices employed today continue to protect the interests of settler conservationists and disadvantage Indigenous sustenance hunters by employing small scale conservation practices aimed at re-introducing small populations of animals into fragmented populations, and banning hunting of certain important species. In 2016, Robin Steenweg, Mark Hebblewhite, David Gummer, Brian Low, and Bill Hunt, published “Assessing Potential Habitat and Carrying Capacity for Reintroduction of Plains Bison (Bison bison bison) in Banff National Park” a report detailing the findings of a study they undertook to evaluate habitat quality and to assess if there was sufficient habitat for a breeding population of Plains Bison in Banff National Park. The study concluded that when limits on carrying capacity are considered, it is likely that Banff National Park can support 600 to 1000 Plains Bison. If successful, this would be one of the largest 10 Plains Bison populations in North America. However, the Canadian bison populations are fragmented into five herds (Elk Island National Park – Alberta, Pink Mountain – British Columbia, Prince Albert National Park – Saskatchewan, and Cold Lake/ Primrose Air Weapons Range – Saskatchewan, and Banff National Park – Alberta) and there are no corridors between herds. Habitat fragmentation usually acts as a limit to population growth because populations cannot interact and benefit from exchange of genetic resources in breeding. In addition, hunting of most Plains Bison populations has largely been banned. The conservation methods employed by Parks Canada with respect to Plains Bison illicit the question: for whose interests are we engaging in these efforts?


Regardless of Parks Canada’s motives, the Stoney Nakoda seem optimistic and ready to engage with the department in order to ensure the Plains Bison thrive in the area. In August 2016, members of the Stoney Nakoda First Nation held a special ceremony to welcome bison back into Banff National Park. In a statement to the Calgary Herald, Hank Snow, a councillor with the Wesley band explained that the land belongs to the bison, rather than to the park or to the Stoney Nakoda, and the Stoney Nakoda have a responsibility to prepare the way for the bison in order for them to stay on the land once they have been returned to it. He also described the purpose of the ceremony: “[w]ith the ceremony, we are asking the spirit of the buffalo to consider coming back to its original territory.” To truly understand the relationship between the Stoney Nakoda and the bison in this region, it is imperative to consider the Stoney Nakoda’s legal order and how it governs the interaction between people and bison. Indigenous legal orders often prescribe a stewardship relationship and resource management strategy based on sustainable use between peoples and their animal relatives, based on millennia of experience interacting with the spirituality and ecology of that relative. It is through exercising these legal orders and carrying out the practices they prescribe, that Indigenous nations, peoples, and cultures may thrive lawfully within their own respective contexts. Thus, if one of the goals of these kinds of conservation efforts is truly reconciliation, Parks Canada must work with the Stoney Nakoda and other Indigenous nations and put responsibilities for stewardship in the hands of those who hold traditional knowledge on bison spirit and ecology.


The federal government claims it wishes to place reconciliation with Indigenous peoples at the heart of national celebrations for Canada 150. If this is truly the case, then federal officials should consider engaging more closely with the Indigenous communities whose traditional knowledge is essential in ensuring that Canada 150 environmental legacy projects like the Plains Bison reintroduction are successful and sustainable over the long-term.

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