The Ronald Lake Wood Bison Herd in Alberta


By Katie Sowden, Alberta Environment and Parks

Do you know that bison were once on the brink of extinction, and only a few hundred remained? With conservation efforts over time, wild free-ranging bison are now found in a number of locations in Alberta. Two types of bison make their home in Alberta, plains bison and wood bison. Wood bison are larger than plains bison, making them the largest land animal in North America.

Excluding Wood Buffalo National Park and Elk Island National Park, Alberta’s wild wood bison are found in small, isolated herds in northern Alberta.

The Ronald Lake bison herd is a crucial population for the recovery of wood bison, both provincially and nationally, and has a population of around 270 bison. Their range of over 2000 square kilometres is bordered by the Birch Mountains to the west and the Athabasca River to the east, with a small portion overlapping Wood Buffalo National Park.

Since 2014, Alberta has worked with partners and supported research to better understand the Ronald Lake bison herd’s ecology and habitat. Surveys are conducted every few years to monitor the herd’s population and health. The next survey is, planned for 2024, will use radio collars, cameras and aerial flights to observe and record changes to the herd’s demographic, distribution, movement and composition.

How Alberta protects the herd

What are the threats to the Ronald Lake bison herd? The most significant risk is the threat of disease from neighbouring bison herds in Wood Buffalo National Park. Although they live in close proximity to diseased bison that have bovine tuberculosis and brucellosis, the Ronald Lake herd is genetically distinct and disease-free. Other potential threats to recovery include changes to habitat from resource extraction activities. The Ronald Lake herd is protected under Alberta legislation, which lists wood bison as threatened.

The recently expanded Kitaskino Nuwenëné Wildland Provincial Park protects a significant portion of the natural habitat of the herd, including 100 per cent of the herd’s calving range. A portion of the herd’s range also occurs in Wood Buffalo National Park. Over one half of the herd’s range occurs within protected areas.

Alberta has established a cooperative management board for the Ronald Lake bison herd. The board includes seven Indigenous communities and several additional organizations and is developing a herd management plan. Ensuring the conservation of the herd, and the sustainability of Indigenous traditional use and cultural connection is of utmost importance.