Parks Canada
Symbol of the Government of Canada

A History of Canada's National Parks
Volume IV
by W.F. Lothian


When the vast reaches of western Canada were being opened to settlement and development, few Canadians gave thought to the conservation of its forests, its wildlife, and its bountiful natural resources. The settlement of agricultural lands was a major objective of both government and railways, and the utilization of forest and mineral wealth was believed to be advantageous to national economy. Rights to mineral and forest lands obtained by early entrepreneurs would however, later be in conflict with the objects and purposes of significant areas reserved for the use and benefit of Canadians. Native big game animals including the bison and prong-horn antelope — once believed to be inexhaustible in numbers — almost disappeared as a result of intensive hunting and other causes. Waters supporting game fish were denuded by illegal fishing methods. Fortunately, before most endangered species of game and fish became extinct and irreplaceable examples of the country's primitive landscape impaired, conservation measures were instigated by a few far-sighted individuals.

The reservation for public use in 1885 of mineral hot springs at Banff in the Canadian Rockies led to the creation of our national parks system. Eventually, thousands of square miles of spectacular grandeur were preserved in perpetuity for public use. Numerous species and forms of wildlife were given sanctuary, and their numbers restored within preserves selected to perpetuate endangered species in their natural habitat. The restoration of the bison or buffalo on the plains of Alberta during the early part of the 20th century afforded a remarkable example of timely conservation. The pronghorn antelope — once almost as prolific as the bison, but later verging on extinction — was also restored to viable numbers by the establishment of suitable sanctuaries. Eventually, through the medium of an international treaty with the United States, migratory birds in Canada including waterfowl, also received long-overdue protection.

Early in 1907, the Government of Canada entered into an agreement with a Montana rancher, Michel Pablo, to buy the largest existing herd of wild bison or buffalo in North America. The creation of a fenced reserve in which to maintain the herd, and the transfer to Canada of 716 bison, provided the North American press with one of the most absorbing topics to arise in years. In the new reserve, later called Buffalo National Park, the herd grew phenomenally and at one time, contained more than 8,000 head. Reduction measures including both annual slaughters and transfers to other parts of Canada became necessary. Owing to the incidence of disease, the Buffalo Park herd was destroyed in 1940, and the park abolished in 1947. Fortunately, other herds of bison, most of them developed from the original Montana stock, remain today in the sanctuary of national parks.

Reserves for the protection of pronghorn antelope were created in 1916, and established as national parks in 1922. This action ensured the survival of one of the fleetest of all the mammals native to Canada's western plains. This protection gradually extended to the species outside the parks, so when antelope populations outside the parks exceeded those within, the antelope parks were abolished.

In 1917, the National Parks Branch of the Department of the Interior was entrusted with the administration of the Migratory Birds Convention Act, which was passed pursuant to the provisions of the Migratory Birds Treaty completed in 1916 between Canada and the United States. A new division, later called the Canadian Wildlife Service, was formed to carry out the work entailed by the legislation. Later, its functions were expanded, and over the years it has provided valuable assistance in the administration of wildlife not only in the national parks but elsewhere throughout Canada. Although no longer a part of Parks Canada, it maintained its identity in another ministry, that of Environment Canada, of which Parks Canada became a component in June, 1979.

The National Park Warden Service, formed as a small group at Banff in 1909, has been expanded to perform an important function in resource management throughout the national park system. The responsibilities of the park warden service include fire and game protection, public safety, law enforcement and fostering good public relations with park visitors. The wardens are called upon to fight and suppress fires; apprehend poachers and others charged with breaches of the law; rescue visitors from predicaments sustained by accident or failure to observe park regulations; and to counsel others planning excursions beyond the main avenues of travel. They also assist in management of game, fish and other park resources.

The administration of national parks has been facilitated in recent years by the acquisition of rights and title to lands within the parks that were alienated many years ago. Rights to cut timber in several parks in western Canada were retained by holders for periods exceeding 80 years, and mining lands containing coal and other minerals remained in private ownership from the early days of the present century. Although some of these holdings were not exploited, they remained a threat to preservation of the park environment. Through negotiation, nearly all such holdings in the form of licences or freehold, have been eliminated by purchase, thus ensuring that industries incompatible with park concepts will not be operated in future.

For many years, Parks Canada and its predecessors have endeavoured to direct the attention of Canadians and others to the pleasures of spending a holiday in the national parks. The great beauty of the landscape, the interesting and varied forms of wildlife, and the health-giving benefits of living out of doors have long been emphasized. Since 1959, other means of acquainting Canadians with the attractions of national parks have been adopted by the establishment of an interpretation and park activities division. Park visitors are encouraged to participate in a program involving the use of nature trails, take part in outings supervised by professional naturalists, and attend fire-side talks supplemented by audio-visual presentations. Interpretation centres and on-site exhibits explaining natural phenomena and indigenous forms of wildlife also help visitors enjoy their stay in the national parks. The involvement of park concessionnaires and their employees, through the medium of training sessions, is expected to extend the scope and usefulness of the park interpretation program.

The following pages give more details on the preservation of endangered wildlife in Canada; the agencies concerned with its protection and conservation; and the restoration to public ownership of alienated natural resources within national parks. The efforts undertaken to acquaint Canadians with the value and advantages of their national parks also are reviewed. The events chronicled, unless otherwise indicated, conclude with those of 1972 and refer to parks established prior to 1969.

"Sir Donald" probably the last of Canada's wild plains bison or buffalo, was captured as a calf on the western plains near Prince Albert, N.W.T. in 1873. He was reared at Stoney Mountain in Manitoba, later sold to Sir Donald Smith, (Lord Strathcona), and eventually donated by the latter with other bison in 1898 to form the nucleus of the buffalo herd at Banff, Alberta. He died in 1909, having attained the age of 37 years.

Michel Pablo, Mexican-born rancher of Ronan, Montana, from whom the Minister of the Interior for Canada purchased 716 plains bison between 1907 and 1912. This herd — the largest in North America — was later given sanctuary in Buffalo National Park near Wainwright, Alberta.

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