1957 Mackenzie Bison Sanctuary

From near extinction to numerous, the story of the wood bison is perhaps Canada’s most dramatic conservation triumph. In the early to mid 1800s the northern wood bison were described as being abundant with their peak population estimated, in 1850, to be 160,000 to 170,000. A hundred years later, in 1950, the wood bison was believed to have become extinct.

With the introduction of guns and trappers moving north, the wood bison had been reduced, by 1900, to between two hundred and five hundred animals. In the 1870s the Canadian Government passed the Buffalo Protection Act making it illegal to shot bison but this made little difference in their decline due to a lack of enforcement.

To help stabilize the wood bison population, the Northwest Mounted Police, who had established a post at Fort Fitzgerald in 1907, began to arrest people for shooting bison. Meanwhile, the Federal government had purchased a herd of 709 plains bison from a rancher in Montana and moved them north to a reserve near Wainwright, Alberta

With this Wainwright herd growing dramatically, the government decided that more than 6000 surplus plains bison could be moved north to the newly created Wood Buffalo National Park,near Fort Smith (map). It was believed that the Park was large enough that the introduced plains bison would not come into contact with the indigenous and much smaller population of wood bison.

Instead the plains bison overwhelmed the wood bison and through interbreeding the pure wood bison subspecies was considered to have become extinct by the 1950s. Not only were there believed to be no pure wood bison remaining but the mixed wood and plains bison in the Park were plagued by cattle diseases present in the animals moved north from Wainwright.

In 1957 the seemingly impossible happened, an airplane patrolling the northeast corner of the Park spotted an isolated herd of bison along the Nyarling River. These 200 animals appeared to be pure wood bison and testing showed that they were free of the diseases common in the main Wood Buffalo Park herd so there likely hadn’t been any contact between the two populations.

In 1963, during a dramatic mid-winter roundup, 18 of these pure wood bison were captured and trucked to the north side of the Mackenzie River and released into the wild near Fort Providence.

By 1989 had grown to 2,400 and stabilized at 1,900 animals by 1998. These bison are now so numerous they’ve become something of a hazard on the highway, not bad for an animal that only a few years ago was taken off the endangered species list!