Elk Island National Park of Canada, or le parc national du Canada Elk Island, is one of 42 National Parks of Canada in the Parks Canada Agency. This “island of conservation” is located just 35km east of Edmonton, Alberta along the Yellowhead Highway, which nearly bisects the park. It is Canada's 8th smallest in area, but largest fully enclosed national park, with an area of 194 km². The park is representative of the northern prairies plateau ecosystem and as such, the knob and kettle landscape is a mix of native fescue grassland, aspen parkland and boreal forest. As well, Elk Island plays host to both the largest and the smallest terrestrial mammals in North America, the wood bison and pygmy shrew respectively.
Elk Island National Park is situated in the Beaverhills area, which with its aspen thickets and easy access to water, has provided shelter for wintering herds of elk, bison and moose since times immemorable. Though there was never any permanent Native American settlement in the area, there are over 200 archeological remains of campsites and stone toolmaking sites. The land has been influenced by the Blackfoot, Sarcee and Cree peoples.
In early post-Contact history, the Beaverhills area was primarily used for commercial hunting. This led to over-hunting and the virtual elimination of beaver from the area by the 1830’s and of large ungulates by the 1860’s. The area then became valuable for timber until 1894, when fire swept through the area. In 1899, the federal government designated the area “The Cooking Lake Forest Reserve”. But while the forest was protected, it did little to protect the moose, elk and deer populations. Thus, in 1906, five Fort Saskatchewanites put forward 5000 $ and petitioned the federal government to set up an elk sanctuary, calling it “Elk Park”. Elk Island Park was later granted federal park status in 1913, and then designation as an official National Park under the National Parks Act which passed through the Canadian Parliament in 1930.
Elk Island is home to the densest population of ungulates (hoofed mammals) in Canada and second densest worldwide with only the Serengeti plains in Africa having a more concentrated population. A variety of wildlife, including plains bison, wood bison, elk, moose, white-tailed deer, mule deer, wolves, coyotes, bears and beavers are year round residents, as well as over 250 bird species that can be found in the park at various times of year. Most notable among these are the Red-necked Grebe, American White Pelican, Double-crested Cormorant, Great Blue Heron, Red Tailed Hawk, American Bittern and the Trumpeter Swan.
Elk Island National Park also remains a seed herd for repopulation efforts in other areas. Elk Island elk have been relocated to various parts North America, including Ontario and the foothills of the Rockies. Plains bison have been reintroduced to conservation areas scattered throughout their historic domain, for example Grasslands National Park and the Old Man on His Back Prairie and Heritage Conservation Area in Saskatchewan, and in 2006, 30 wood bison were relocated to the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia) to begin repopulation efforts of the area historically inhabited by the now extinct steppe bison.
Elk Island National Park has a prominent history in large ungulate conservation. As early as 1907, the Canadian government bought one of the last and largest remaining pure-bred plains bison, the Pablo-Allard herd, from Montana. Close to 400 bison were shipped to Elk Island as a temporary waystation until the fencing at Buffalo Park in Wainwright was completed. In 1909 the fence was finished and 325 bison were relocated to Buffalo National Park. However, 50-70 bison evaded capture and became the ancestors of today's herd in Elk Island National Park. In 2007, there were an estimated 425 plains bison in Elk Island.
In the late 19th century, only 300 wood bison remained worldwide, almost exclusively in Wood Buffalo National Park. During the 1920’s, 6000-7000 plains bison were also relocated to Wood Buffalo National Park. These bison were not only infected with brucellosis and tuberculosis, which infected the wood bison herd, but the wood and plains subspecies also interbred, and thus it was thought that wood bison were completely extinct by the 1940’s. In 1957, however, a disease-free, wood bison herd of 200 was discovered near Nyarling river in Wood Buffalo National Park. In 1965, 23 of these bison were relocated to the south side of Elk Island National Park and remain there today as the most genetically pure wood bison remaining. In 2007, the wood bison population in Elk Island National Park was estimated at 315.