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Indigenous advisory circle seeking guardianship for Banff bison

“Wildlife should come first and foremost. But we find ourselves asking the question should we make room for the people or reroute the people to make room for the wildlife? These are some of the concerns that we are trying to work through the best we can with Parks.”

BANFF – As Banff National Park’s reintroduced plains bison population swells, so too has interest in how the herd is being managed long-term.

An Indigenous advisory circle, comprised of all Treaty 7 First Nations and the Métis Nation of Alberta Region 3, is working with Parks Canada’s Banff field unit to develop what they believe would be a more well-rounded conservation plan for the species with the help of an Indigenous Guardians program.

Member of the Banff National Park Indigenous advisory circle and consultation director for the Tsuut’ina Nation, Violet Meguinis, said Indigenous peoples have much to offer in the way of traditional knowledge of the animal. They also share a deep desire to see the iconic species – reintroduced to the park in 2017 – make a triumphant return.

“Many First Nations in this area have close connections to the buffalo,” said Meguinis. “It has a lot of spiritual meaning for us and to be able to have the chance to be a part of returning the animal to this area in a greater capacity would be really special and important.

“The guardians project is something we’re working on that is very near and dear to this group.”

In the 2021 budget, the federal government announced another $100 million for its Indigenous Guardian program to be spread over five years, allowing Indigenous peoples greater opportunity to exercise responsibility in stewardship of their traditional territory. This extends what began as a four-year pilot program in 2017 with an initial investment of $25 million to support new and existing Indigenous Guardians initiatives.

The extension of the program also includes the development of guardians’ networks, guided by a distinctions-based approach that respects and acknowledges the unique rights and interests of different groups of Indigenous peoples.

With support from the guardians program, groups represented on the Banff advisory circle could each play an important role in sharing traditional knowledge about bison habitat, behaviour and conservation practices from Indigenous perspectives, while expanding cultural, fieldwork and research opportunities for those involved.

“We’ve always tried to maintain the buffalo population,” said Meguinis. “For us, we need the ability to hold on to and play a part in something that was crucial for us and critical to our own sustainability.”

Engaging Indigenous peoples in continuing the dialogue on bison conservation is a key part of advancing the calls of the Buffalo Treaty, first signed in 2014.

Tasha Hubbard, a board member of the International Buffalo Relations Institute and associate professor with the University of Alberta’s faculty of native studies, said other First Nations signing the treaty in Banff a year later was an integral part of reintroducing bison to the national park. 

“The spirit of the Buffalo Treaty is that inter-tribal relationship; coming together supporting the buffalo and supporting each other,” she said. “It’s important not to lose sight of that ... it was a long history to bring those buffalo back. It didn’t happen overnight.”

Wild plains bison had been missing from Banff National Park for about 160 years until Parks launched the $6.4 million reintroduction project in 2017, which saw 12 pregnant cows and four bulls reintroduced to the backcountry.

Since then, the population of the herd has grown to about 80, prompting discussions about future population control with Indigenous protocol in mind.

“At some point, we have to start talking about when the bison start becoming plentiful,” said Meguinis. “We may not be there yet, but they’re clearly doing well, and there are ways to manage that population responsibly in the future that can also be culturally significant to Indigenous peoples, and lead to re-establishing that connection we have with the animal.”

In Tsuut’ina Nation, where a bison reintroduction plan began in the 1970s, the population has grown from 30 animals to more than 300. The bison, which were brought in from Elk Island National Park, roam a 485-hectare patch of land in the heart of the Nation and provide benefits to the land and to community members, offering educational opportunities to local youth and researchers, and ceremonial activities, including harvesting.

“The Nation manages the population independently, and every year, when they do a kill, there’s protocols and teachings surrounding it,” said Meguinis.

As is custom, nothing from the animals is left to waste, with the meat becoming an annual offering to community elders.

“For us, we can now start talking about things like food security,” said Meguinis. “Maybe, eventually, that could be a conversation around the herd in Banff – these are the kinds of considerations having an Indigenous guardian project brings to the table.”

On the doorstep of Banff National Park, Îyârhe Nakoda First Nation, comprised of the Bearspaw, Chiniki and Goodstoney bands, initiated its own bison reintroduction plan at Stoney Indian Park, also in the 1970s.

The Nation still manages the herd of 80-90 free-roaming plains bison, continuing to perform ceremonies in its traditional territory with high regard for the animal as an important part of the landscape.

A Parks Canada report on the five-year bison pilot project released in November 2022, stated it considered feedback from all Treaty 7 First Nations, including Îyârhe Nakoda First Nation, in revising its project plan.

This included feedback from a study led by the Nation, Enhancing the Reintroduction of Plains Bison in Banff National Park Through Cultural Monitoring and Traditional Knowledge, released in April 2022.

The report, received by Parks officials, contains 11 suggestions to ensure the ongoing prosperity of the bison herd and promote cooperative management between Parks and First Nations.

Recommendations call for several actions, including continuing the program beyond the initial five-year pilot, conducting a ceremony with First Nations at the beginning of each new phase, and allowing ongoing cultural monitoring fieldwork to occur, in addition to creating a guardian program for the bison with Îyârhe Nakoda First Nation. 

The report also advocates for enlarging the reintroduction zone to cover the entire park and granting First Nations the ability to harvest animals once the population becomes too large.

“There may be an opportunity to support Indigenous harvesting if there is a need to reduce herd numbers or if a particular individual needs to be destroyed for public safety or other management reasons,” the report states. “How these individuals are managed should be informed by the observed herd social structure and advice of elders. Ceremony should be conducted before any bison is removed from the herd for any reason.”

The herd has lost two calves to wolf attacks, two bulls also had to be relocated and two other determined males were killed for wandering onto provincial lands.

A spokesperson from Parks Canada was not available in time for the Outlook’s deadline to confirm whether the kills were handled with Indigenous protocols in mind.

Meguinis pointed out that with a guardian program, and with more say in healthy herd management, Indigenous consultation before removing an animal could become part of standard procedure, determining if or how the animal should be killed.

“There are many protocols around how we take down a buffalo, including ceremony,” she said. “There has to be a process to killing the animal. Many of our elders say it does something to the spirit of the animal if you do not honour it.”

Meguinis said her husband, Michael, a Tsuut’ina elder, puts the connection and responsibility many Indigenous peoples feel to the animal most eloquently.

“He likes to say, ‘The buffalo looked after us, now it’s our turn to look after the buffalo,’” she said. “I think that describes the relationship perfectly.”

While not specifically for the management of the bison herd, the Îyârhe Nakoda First Nation also applied to become Indigenous Guardians for Banff National Park in 2018.

The application was ultimately denied, but the Indigenous advisory circle believes there is still an opportunity to create a guardian role within the park.

Since the rejection of the application, Banff National Park released its 2022 management plan, which includes a high-level strategy to strengthen Indigenous relations by ensuring First Nations representatives have a say in the direction of the park and its practices.

Mike Oka, a member of the Banff advisory circle and consultation coordinator for the Kainai-Blood Tribe, said it would be ideal to have guardians acting as monitors who study the bison alongside Parks biologists.

But the biggest consideration, he said, will be how much room Parks is willing to make for the bison.

“As far as bison numbers are concerned, we like to let things grow and keep things natural,” said Oka. “But there are so many restrictions on wildlife movement with highway development, pipelines and transmission lines – everything is impeding the natural growth of wildlife and everything else in the park.

“Wildlife should come first and foremost. But we find ourselves asking the question should we make room for the people or reroute the people to make room for the wildlife? These are some of the concerns that we are trying to work through the best we can with Parks.”

Meguinis reiterated discussions between the advisory circle and Parks have been very promising, but said at this point, nothing is guaranteed.

In an email, public relations and communications officer with Parks' Banff field unit, Kira Tryon, said further engagement between members of the advisory circle and their respective communities will happen over the next several months to determine if establishing a guardians program is something they would like to pursue. 

“Next steps for establishing a program are dependent on the outcome of these conversations,” she said. 

Each member of the roundtable will work with their Nation’s elders and bison experts to determine what a guardian program for the bison could look like before further discussion.

“Once our community engagement is done, we will have something more concrete,” said Meguinis.

The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada. The position covers Îyârhe (Stoney) Nakoda First Nation and Kananaskis Country.

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