Waterton Lakes National Park Captive Plains Bison | Why?

by on October 17, 2013

tell us why …

It’s no secret to many Albertans we are home to free roaming wild Plains bison, as well as the threatened species, the Wood bison. Alberta is instrumental in sustaining the presence of Plains bison in various places in the world, all in thanks to the conservation efforts out of Elk Island National Park. There is even a proposal in the works to reintroduce wild Plains bison back to Banff National Park, where they once roamed; a proposal I fully support and have since the beginning. More on this another day.

What I’ve never quite understood is why there is a small herd of Plains bison in Waterton National Park? I wasn’t aware of any conservation efforts outside of the Elk Island boundaries, so when I finally found myself back in Southern Alberta for a few days at the tail end of summer, I made sure to head to the Bison Paddock in Waterton to get some answers. It has bugged me for years.


Captive plains bison in the Bison Paddock at Waterton Lakes National Park during later summer, silhouette.


It was cold, hazy, rainy and incredibly windy 2 of the 3 times we went to the paddock, but I managed to pull over and take a few snaps while I observed them in the field, as I was super curious and it was immediately clear this was not a typical Alberta wildlife experience; we were watching captive animals roaming a fenced in area. Heartbreaking.

Upon my return, I dug around and this is what I came up with, straight from the Parks Canada site: “There are currently 18 bison in the herd in Waterton Lakes National Park. The park has maintained a display bison herd since 1952, with strong public support.” – Parks Canada (note: the link is now dead).

“Historically, bison inhabited the prairie and east slopes of the mountains by the millions. Now, a small herd of them is maintained in a paddock near the Pincher Creek entrance. Between 12 and 20 animals are kept in this fenced-off area of fescue prairie. A trail, exhibit and viewing road are also located there. In winter, the bison are kept in an adjacent open winter paddock and are fed by the park wardens when required. Every few years the herd is culled to keep the population healthy and to make sure the carrying capacity of their paddock range is not exceeded” – Parks Canada, Wildlife Hooves There?

Really? CULLED? This is a practice at National and State / Provincial parks around the world. I’m not going to debate the management practices of wildlife within a governed park. There are many AMAZING things happening in our national parks, but there are also irresponsible practices and this includes the culling of ungulates when their natural predators are within the park boundaries. It happens and unfortunately it is not too well known and it seems very little is being done about it. Oops, didn’t I say I wasn’t going to talk about that here? Back to Waterton and the captive bison roaming the Bison Paddock.



I just do not understand why they are in Waterton and why in captivity? Is this because in 1952, someone at Parks Canada figured it was appropriate to put wild animals on display? Is this because of the real concern from neighbouring farmers who are worried with potential cross breeding with their cattle? It’s been a concern regarding the possible bison reintroduction to Banff, and since Waterton is surrounded by farmland, I can see it being a reason. The bison’s natural predator, the wolf, is a Waterton resident, so I don’t see why culling would be neccessary if they were to allow their bison to roam free, not to mention other bison predators such as grizzly bears and mountain lions who also reside within the park. Of course there is much more to the decision made in 1952 to have a captive herd of bison reside, but so little is known about the backstory of bison in Waterton to the general public and I need to know more; I need to know why. It’s important to me as a wildlife enthusiast and a strong supporter of conservation efforts. I’m no park ranger, so to those involved in the day-to-day decisions regarding our wildlife, they would probably have a chuckle or serious eye-roll over this post, but it remains a legitimate question from my end: why are they still there?



Interesting enough, when digging around for more info, I came across an archived document from COSEWIC, written and released in 2004. Also interesting how back then, the herd was larger, the animals were auctioned off instead of in-house culling and there were plans to increase the herds in numbers and to be a semi-free ranging population. Also, they were supplied by Elk Island, which I suspected, but is this really the case today? What has happened to those other plans? I hope to find out.

Waterton Lakes National Park in southern Alberta maintains a 200 ha bison paddock near the Pincher Creek entrance to the park (R. Watt, pers. com., 2002). The herd was established in 1952, with bison obtained from Elk Island National Park, to honour the bison that once roamed freely in the area. The breeding stock is still periodically supplemented with plains bison from Elk Island National Park (R. Watt, pers. com., 2002). The current population is stable with 26 animals. The herd is managed to maintain between 12 and 24 individuals (R. Watt, pers. com., 2002). Surplus bison are sold at public auctions every two or three years. There are tentative plans to expand the herd size and range and to manage the increased herd as a semi- free-ranging population (R. Watt, pers. com., 2002).

Speaking of semi-free ranging wildlife – I’ve mentioned it on this site before, but the bison at Elk Island National Park are an extirpated species in Alberta and are wild — semi wild, actually. Elk Island is huge (194 km²), but there is a fence along the park boundaries, as they need to separate the two herds of bison, Plains and Wood, to prevent interbreeding (there is a main highway between the two areas of the park). Conservation efforts are very strong at the park and critical to the survival of several species around the world, therefore these Plains bison are extirpated, as classified by Alberta EP. The herds at Elk Island should never be compared to those roaming at Waterton.

By the way – you will never ever find any captive animals in my wildlife galleries or me promoting them in any way. At all. I do not support animals in captivity for the sole purpose of entertainment, nor will I ever. You will never catch me at a zoo either, for the record. I will include such images in my blog only when I feel the need to write about them is there, which would only then warrant a trip to see these captive species to obtain information, such as the bison in Waterton.



For the record, Waterton is one of the most special places in Canada, if not on Earth. The beauty of the Canadian Rockies in Waterton is a different kind of beauty than its sister (cousin?) mountains in Banff and Jasper. The Lewis mountain range is truly amazing. It’s a place I’ve only been to a few times in my life, but I hope to head back as often as I can. Saying this, the captive herd in the park taints the magic of this place for me and I want to get to the bottom of this. I’m no wildlife expert, so I will be speaking with those in the know, or trying to at least (update: so far I have struck out on getting information, sigh). The status of Alberta wildlife is extremely important to me …

Until then, if you have any theories or insight on the bison in Waterton, or any wildlife management practices in Alberta, please speak up. I’d love to be in touch.


See you in the field!


Photographer. Podcaster on hiatus. Edmonton Oilers lovah. Cinematic Star Wars fan. Fond of wildlife conservation, animal rescue orgs, and all things Johnny Cash. Gen X. 

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