By Theodora MacLeod - Lethbridge Herald Local Journalism Initiative Reporter on September 28, 2023.
For centuries bison were a prominent part of the ecosystem in Western Canada and the United States, but by the late 1800s they faced near extinction from overhunting. However, a Pincher Creek outdoorsman hopes to restore some of the now lost population to the foothills as an act of restoration, and reconciliation.
Mike Judd, president of the Foothills Bison Restoration Society, spoke to members of the Southern Alberta Council on Public Affairs (SAPCA) last week about his plans to bring the species colloquially known as buffalo back to southwestern Alberta.
Though the project is still in the early stages of planning, Judd hopes the bison can be relocated from Elk Island National Park to the Bob Creek Wildland, a provincial park that sits north of the Crowsnest Pass area between the Livingstone Range, the Oldman River, and Highway 22 and is home to various animals including grizzly bears, elk, and wolves. The park is over 51,000 acres and is currently dedicated to cattle grazing with 11 grazing allotments.
As part of his presentation, Judd screened a short film made to support the project. Titled “Coming Home,” the video features Elders from the Kainai Nation, Charlie Fox and Dolly Creighton. The Foothills Bison Restoration Project hopes to include the Indigenous community and Judd says he has sent letters to all the Tribes asking for their involvement.
While the project hopes restoring the bison population to the area will have positive impacts ecologically, there is also cultural and spiritual significance that could make the restoration an important act of Reconciliation.
“The bison disappeared first, so to bring them back would just be like everybody coming home to the land that they once occupied,” says Fox in the second half of the short film. As a keystone species, the health of a bison herd is an indicator of the health of the ecosystem, something vital in the understanding and preservation of nature and the environment as a whole.
Creighton also expresses her faith that restoring the animal to the area will positively impact the Indigenous community. “If they come back, maybe it can be a reminder of who we are, of our spirituality, of our way of life for our young people and future generations,” she says.
Currently, the Foothills Bison Restoration Society is fundraising to hire ecologists to conduct a feasibility study on the Bob Creek Wildland area to ensure any restoration would have a positive impact on both the area and the bison. With a $50,000 goal on their GoFundMe, the project is no small undertaking, but Judd is passionate. “This is your land, it’s public land and it should be, in my opinion, managed to the best possible standard,” he told the SAPCA audience.