Alberta's Elk Island Bison

Somewhat ironically, Alberta’s Elk Island National Park is more famous for its bison than elk. I’ve been fortunate enough to spot the elusive elk on a few occasions (there are approximately 400-500 elk in the park and yet they are rarely seen by casual visitors), but it’s the bison herds that make themselves known with their gigantic bodies dotting the landscape. They are often hanging out in herds of several dozen in the open fields and along the gravel roads that penetrate the dense boreal forests. I’ve made many trips to Elk Island NP, it’s located only a 40 minute drive from downtown Edmonton, Alberta. I love it there in all seasons. It provides me with necessary breaks from city life, for which I may ultimately be ill-suited.

A Brief History of Elk Island

Elk Island National Park is located just east of Edmonton, Alberta. It is composed of 194 square kilometres of boreal plain, forest, and wetland. Several large lakes are in its protected boundaries, as well as seemingly countless smaller lakes and ponds. The area was established as a big game sanctuary in 1906, after several Albertans petitioned the government to protect some of the last remaining elk herds in Canada. It is also the first federally protected wildlife area in Canada. In 1930, Elk Island became a national park. The name “Elk Island” refers to the elk for which the area was established to protect, as well as the islands that dot Astotin Lake.

In 1906 there were only 24 elk, a few moose, and a dwindling number of mule deer within Elk Island’s boundaries. Bison were reintroduced from Montana and arrived in Elk Island in 1909. The eradicated population of beaver was also reintroduced in 1942. Thanks to conservation efforts, populations of wildlife proliferated. Elk Island National Park is a conservation success story. Today thousands of visitors come from all over Canada to enjoy birding, camping, canoeing, hiking, northern lights viewing, and to see bison in the wild. The elk population has rebounded to over 400, and moose are a fairly common sight near the lakes in fall and winter.

There are two major herds of wild bison in Elk Island: plains bison and wood bison. The plains herd is located in the northern section of the park, north of Alberta Highway 16. The wood bison herd is located in the woodland to the south of the highway. This separation keeps the two groups from interbreeding. At present there are around 400 plains and 300 wood bison in Elk Island. Elk Island’s population has helped repopulate bison in other parts of North America as well; they were recently reintroduced in Banff National Park and have been used to increase herds in the United States. According to Parks Canada, “If you see a bison in Canada, chances are they came from Elk Island National Park at some point!” For more information on the parks history, visit the Elk Island National Park webpage.

Photographing Bison in Elk Island National Park

Despite their size and relative abundance, bison can sometimes be hard to find in Elk Island. The roads and trails within the park only provide visitors with easy access to a small part of the protected area. Most of the time a large herd of plains bison can be spotted grazing in the fields near the gravel road labelled “Bison Loop.” They are also often seen near the forest edge in the newly opened turnout across from the Bison Loop. I’ve had much better luck locating plains bison than wood bison, as they are usually out in the open. Wood bison can only be accessed by a trail that loops through the forest (accessible on the south side of the highway).

The plains herd can often be photographed from the safety of a vehicle. You don’t want to approach bison (approaching a bull is illegal). It is against park regulations to get any closer than 100 metres on foot. Bison will often get pretty close to your vehicle. They don’t seem to be very skittish of cars, but people on foot can freak them out. They seem docile, like cows grazing in a field, but they are very dangerous and surprisingly fast animals. I’ve watched a spooked herd of a few dozen bison cut and run in a thunderous dusty rumble across the fields and roads of Elk Island simply because a person got out of their car. You don’t want fifty 2,000 lb bison running at you!

For the best photographic results, I use either a 70-200mm or 200-500mm lens. Often large bulls will be hanging out alone near the road sides, so the shorter telephoto is sufficient. My bison portraits have been made using the Nikon 200-500mm VR, most of them handheld from my SUV. I’d like to point out here that I’m very ethically conscious when it comes to photographing wildlife, especially in winter when animals shouldn’t be stressed out because their energy and food supply is low; a picture is never worth disturbing the subject. The few times I’ve photographed bison on foot were from a safe distance on a hiking trail or a stand of trees at least 100 metres away from the nearest animal. Don’t make a lot of noise, sudden movements, and never approach directly. If an animal changes it’s behaviour at your presence, you’re too close!

Go Out, Stay Out

Elk Island National Park is an amazing place. It really is a privilege for me to be so close by. Some of my favourite images that I’ve ever made were made there. I’ve had many wonderful experiences, from listening to loons calling and elk bugling while the northern lights dance above me, to watching large bison walk across vast frozen lakes. It’s a special place.

Want to see more from Elk Island National Park? Here are a few other articles I’ve written:
How to Photograph the Northern Lights
A Frozen Landscape: Winter in Elk Island National Park
Elk Island National Park Mini-Guide