IUCN - Where bison roam and our conservation legacy lives on

Where bison roam and our conservation legacy lives on

21 February 2013 | Fact sheet

Elk Island National Park, Canada

Background

Canada’s National Parks System Plan identifies 39 natural regions in Canada and provides for the creation of a national park in each region to present and protect the diversity of natural environments.

Created in 1913 as Canada’s 6th national park, Elk Island National Park of Canada protects a representative sample of the Southern Boreal Plains and Plateaux Natural Region.

Elk Island National Park is situated in the Beaver Hills, in the Canadian province of Alberta. The area encompasses grasslands, wetlands, lakes and aspen dominated forests rich in wildlife and its name suggests a particular abundance in beaver. What made the Beaver Hills unique were the aspen thickets which surrounded the prairie. This landscape provided forage, water and protection to many species of wildlife which were utilized by First Nations peoples for thousands of years.

European trading posts and settlement had an immediate effect upon the wildlife and landscape in the Beaver Hills Area. By 1815 the fur trade had nearly extirpated the beaver; and by the late 1860’s bison were eliminated from the area, and other large ungulates were scarce. Hunting pressure continued on the local elk population. In 1906, five Albertans from the Fort Saskatchewan area persuaded the federal government to create a wildlife sanctuary for the elk of the Beaver Hills – the first wildlife preserve for large mammals in Canada. This sanctuary became the national park.

Today, the park is home to many wildlife species, including the elk (Cervus elaphus), moose (Alces alces), white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), plains bison (Bison bison bison), wood bison (Bison bison athabascae), beaver (Castor canadensis), coyote (Canis latrans) and many other species of mammalsand birds. The park has been instrumental in the recovery of the trumpeter swan (Cygnus buccinators), the plains bison and the wood bison. The park also plays an important role in the preservation of the aspen parkland habitat.

In September 2006, a 300 km square region east of the City of Edmonton that includes all of Elk Island National Park was designated as the Beaver Hills Dark Sky Preserve.  

View photos of the site:

Size and location

Elk Island National Park is located in the heart of the Canadian province of Alberta, in the Beaver Hills, approximately 45 kilometres east of the city of Edmonton. The park is 194 square kilometres in size. The Park’s knob and kettle topography rises 30 to 60 metres above the surrounding plains of Alberta.

 Flora and Fauna

Elk Island’s boreal forest and Aspen thickets contain numerous wildlife species, including the Elk (Cervus elaphus), Moose (Alces alces), White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus), Plains Bison (Bison bison bison), Beaver (Castor canadensis), Coyote (Canis latrans) and many other species of mammals and birds. The park is a bird watcher’s paradise, containing over 250 species. It has been instrumental in the recovery of the Trumpeter Swan (Cygnus buccinators), the Plains Bison and the Wood Bison (Bison bison athabascae). The park also plays an important role in the preservation of the Aspen parkland habitat.

Park Management

Elk Island National Park is managed by Parks Canada, the Canadian Federal government agency responsible for protecting and presenting nationally significant examples of Canada’s natural and cultural heritage, and for fostering public understanding, appreciation and enjoyment in ways that ensure the ecological and commemorative integrity of these places for present and future generations. Founded in 1911, Parks Canada is the world’s first national parks service and is a global leader in conservation.

Threats, management challenges and measures taken in response

Due to the proximity of the park to the nearby agro-industrial community, cattle farming may pose the threat of disease transfer from domestic animals to the ungulates within the park. In order to ensure disease transfer does not happen, the bison and elk in the park are disease tested and monitored. As well, cooperation with the neighbours adjacent to the park allows for increased awareness of this issue, helping to reduce the possibility of diseases spreading in either direction.

The entire national park has been fenced by a 2.2 metres ungulate fence. With its large population of native ungulates (bison, elk, moose, and deer) Elk Island is a protected area which contains most of the biological components once found in the natural parkland landscape. The park’s limited size and high ungulate populations, most of which are not able to move freely in and out of the park, have affected the natural processes. Natural processes such as predation and ungulate migration have been replaced by resource management programs. Through careful management Elk Island has been able to provide plains and wood bison that are disease-free and free of cattle genes to conservation projects throughout Canada and the world. The park has also served as a source herd for re-establishing elk in other areas of Canada as well as the United States. 

Species at Risk
Wood bison, a species at risk in Canada, once numbered less than 300 animals worldwide. 23 wood bison were shipped to Elk Island in 1965, so that a herd could be established away from the northern herd, in Wood Buffalo National Park, as insurance for the survival of the species. Today, about 350 wood bison roam freely in the southern fenced portion of the park and are isolated from the plains bison. Surplus wood bison are used for reintroducing animals into the wild. Wood Bison numbers in Canada now total in the thousands. In 1988, wood bison were down-listed from endangered status to that of a threatened species.

Other species at risk in Canada found in Elk Island National Park include one species of amphibian, the Western toad (Bufo boreas).