Thursday, October 11, 2012

Bison sanctuaries: Elk Island and Wood Buffalo National Parks

Photo by Chris Perkins

Elk Island Park began when five friends pooled their money to ensure a home for Alberta's elk.

Today, the park is an "island" home not only for elk, but for two large herds of bison. The Plains Bison live on the north side of the highway and the larger, heavier Wood Bison on the south.

Like the Plains bull in the picture, bison graze along the park's roadways, quite unconcerned about who is watching them eat. They live by natural foraging. When the herd grows too large for the range, the Park makes animals available to establish herds elsewhere.

There are plenty of hiking trails for visitors, who can see animals, beaver dams and enjoyable views of the park's many lakes. Several hundred moose also call the park home, along with numerous beavers. The descendants of the original elk are shy of humans and rarely show themselves.

Wood Buffalo National Park sustains a herd of 5000 wood bison. These are the largest mammals of North America, and the park is also Canada's largest. Totalling 44,807 square kilometers, it is bigger than Switzerland. Straddling northern Alberta and the Northwest Territories, and including the huge Peace-Athabasca delta, it is also home to a huge flock of whooping cranes and the world's largest beaver dam, which took forty years to build. Not surprisingly, Wood Buffalo Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Before Europeans came to North America, the prairie was thick with bison. According to Dale S. Lott, they probably numbered in the millions before the "Great Slaughter" that culminated in the late nineteenth century.

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