Ten years ago the Sturgeon River Plains Bison Herd had 500 free-roaming bison living in and around Prince Albert National Park. Now there are 120.

Researchers say the biggest reason for the dramatic drop in population is overhunting. The bison are protected within the national park, but when they wander outside of the boundaries they can be hunted by First Nations people.

Anthony Blair Dreaver Johnston of the Mistawasis First Nation said the loss of the herd would be devastating to the First Nation people both as a physical provision and a spiritual connection.

“In order to define ourselves as a nation, as a people, we need the buffalo,” Johnston told CTV News.

Johnston said Mistawasis First Nation is dedicated to making a change for this herd and has signed the Buffalo Treaty, an agreement to find ways to conserve and revive the buffalo. The Buffalo Treaty was started by First Nations in Alberta and the United States. Mistawasis is the only First Nation in Saskatchewan to have signed, but Johnston said he hopes to educate and encourage others in the area to take part.

Prince Albert National Park is also making efforts to maintain the herd by encouraging the bison to remain in the park boundaries where they are protected.

Resource Conservation Manager Norman Stolle said the park is using electric fencing along common crossing points on the Sturgeon River to encourage the bison to remain on the park side of the water.

He said the park also tries to create more habitat within the park with prescribed burns. These burns also create new growth, which bison are often looking for when wandering into surrounding fields, according to Stolle.

Gord Vaadeland used to live on a ranch bordering the park and said although nobody likes trampled crops or fencing, he and other landowners have been stewards of the herd and want to see the population grow again.

“Unless we change, unless something changes, there’s an 80 per cent chance that this herd will be gone,” Vaadeland said.