Often envisaged as the iconic wilderness animal of pre-contact times in North America, the bison (Bos bison) population has faced near extinction from a once formidable population of approximately forty million in the seventeenth century. Dramatic conservation measures were undertaken in the early part of the twentieth century to give bison a chance to survive, but the species continues to face many of the same threats that have caused their numbers to decline for the past 300 years.
Bison played an important role in the disturbance regimes of prairie and woodland wilderness areas throughout central and northern North America; they also provided forage for large carnivores such as wolves, coyotes, and grizzly bears. Efforts are being made in Alberta and other jurisdictions to re-establish the role of bison as an ecological keystone species. Land use planners, First Nations communities and federal agencies continue to work in cooperation as wood bison numbers grow and the range expands throughout the boreal ecoregion in northern Alberta. Further initiatives are under discussion with the goal of re-establishing a plains bison population in southeastern Alberta in conjunction with other provinces and states through the Northern Plains Conservation Network.
Unfortunately, in Alberta free-ranging bison outside of the Bison Management Area in the northwest corner of Alberta are designated “livestock.” Because they are not considered wildlife, they have no status under Alberta’s Wildlife Act. In that northwest corner, bison is listed as endangered.
AWA continues to advocate for the protection of wild areas that will enable bison to persist as a self-reproducing population in Alberta and to move throughout its historic ranges so that traditional First Nations cultural practices may resume along with the ecological restoration of bison as a keystone species in a wild landscape.
Wood bison (Bison bison athabascae)
- IUCN – At Risk (1996)
- U.S. Endangered Species Act – Endangered in Canada (1970)
Plains Bison (Bison bison bison)
- COSEWIC – Threatened (May 2004)
- Species at Risk Act – No status
* Species at Risk Act – Threatened
(Wild Species 2005: The General Status of Species in Canada; no distinction between plains and wood bison)
- Canada - Sensitive
- British Columbia - May be at risk
- Saskatchewan - Sensitive
- Alberta, Yukon, NWT and Manitoba - At risk
NOTE: Within the Wildlife Regulations, wood bison are not recognized as a subspecies separate from plains bison.
- General status - At risk (The General Status of Alberta Wild Species 2000 [Alberta Sustainable Resource Development 2001])
- Wildlife Act - Endangered, but only within the Bison Management Area in northwestern Alberta. Within the rest of the province, free-ranging bison are designated “livestock” and therefore have no consideration in the legislation