Great Canadian Parks / Alberta

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The Parks / Alberta / Elk Island National Park

By the turn of the century, hunting posed a threat to wildlife populations such as the elk in Beaver Hills, considered to be one of the last herds in Canada by 1903. Five concerned residents of the area proposed to the federal government that they would deliver at least 20 elk to a reserve around Astotin Lake, in return for the government reimbursing them for the cost of fencing the land. This agreement may have been the beginning of Canada’s game laws. The herd that was delivered had never been crossed with other elk and thus are today one of the few, and possibly the only, herd that has not been hybridized.


In the 1880’s a small group of plains buffalo calves were rescued and turned loose on a reserve in Montana after a hunting party had wiped out all the adults in the herd. Years later, two Montana ranchers, realizing the little herd might be the last in existence, bought them and gave them free range with their cattle. When the U.S. government offered to purchase these buffalo, they so offended the owner’s pride that he refused their bid, accepting $200 a head from the Canadian government instead and 716 bison were sent to Elk Island. When a larger facility was finally completed at Buffalo Park, in Wainwright, Alberta, the herd, except for 48 animals that avoided capture, were sent to the new reserve. Also at Buffalo Park was a small herd of the nearly extinct wood buffalo, which interbred with the plains buffalo. As a result, almost all the world’s purebred plains bison have originated from that small herd of 48 left behind in Elk Island. No longer considered endangered, more than100 000 plains bison are now found in parks and zoos all over North America.


In 1957, a small herd of purebred wood buffalo were discovered in a remote section of Buffalo Park and in 1965, Elk Island received 23 of the endangered animals so a herd could be established isolated from the plains bison - an insurance for the survival of the species. The Trumpeter Swan has been designated a vulnerable species, having been hunted to near extinction for its meat, feathers and down. In 1987, the re-introduction of the swan in Elk Island National Park, through a program of capture and release of entire families, was begun in August when adults are molting and young cygnets have not fledged. When these families migrated back to Canada the following spring, the relocated cygnets returned to Elk Island and a population began that in 1998 saw a family of Trumpeter Swans successfully hatched and raised in the park.

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