PRINCE ALBERT -- One of the last free-roaming plains bison herds in Canada is seeing signs of renewal after over a decade of population decline.

The Sturgeon River Plains Bison Herd roams on the southwest side of Prince Albert National Park. The park has adjusted its monitoring methods over the years and has settled on observation to determine estimated populations every year, according to wildlife ecologist Digit Guedo.

She said this year’s aerial survey and counts from people on the land show a minimum population of 98 bison, but the herd is likely sitting at around 120 animals – that’s up from an aerial survey in 2016, which showed a minimum of 58 bison.

Guedo said the count is rewarding after so many years of working to conserve the herd.

“You don’t get into conservation for a paycheck. You do it because you feel like it’s the right thing to do and often times the environment doesn’t change on a human timeline,” she said.

“We do something, we want to see immediate results, when in all actuality it could be decades or it could be past our lifetime before we start to see the benefits and the change.”

The Sturgeon River Plains Bison Herd reached its peak population between 2006 and 2008 at over 450 animals. The population started declining in 2008, when an anthrax outbreak hit the herd and killed about 60 bison.

The population also declined significantly because of unsustainable hunting rates.

After the swift decline, Prince Albert National Park started amping up its work with organizations such as the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), Indigenous communities, landowners and the province to conserve the herd.

The herd dates back to 1969, when government released 50 plains bison from Alberta’s Elk Island National Park into the Thunder Hills area in Saskatchewan.

According to Parks Canada, 10 to 15 bison moved south and made their home in the Sturgeon River area.

As a keystone species, Guedo said wild bison are important to maintain the landscape.

“Their presence is still seen today and it’s amazing how quickly the habitat changes once bison are back on the landscape,” she said.

They’re also important to Indigenous culture.

Gord Vaadeland, the executive director of CPAWS Saskatchewan, has been working with Indigenous leaders to conserve the plains bison herd.

“It’s kind of two rewarding things that are happening side-by-side – we’re seeing the bison start to come back, those numbers start to come back and we’re seeing this reconciliation that’s also happening,” he said.

He said Parks Canada and landowners in the area are “knowledge keepers” of the Sturgeon River Plains Bison Herd.

“The stewards and the ranchers play a really important role in transferring that knowledge to the Indigenous leaders, who then in turn transfer that to the hunters or to the youth, the elders,” he said.

Vaadeland is one of the founding members of the Sturgeon River Plains Bison Stewards. He lived in the area where the bison were released back in 1969 and had wild bison roaming on his own land.

“I remember when they showed up. I’ve got pictures that my mom took of bison running around on the field. I’ve had a long involvement with the herd and basically grew up with them in my backyard,” he said.

Vaadeland said the signs of renewal give him hope for the herd’s future.

“For the last few years, I’ve been very concerned about the direction the population has been going. When you start having years when you’re only having 10 calves and there might be 30 to 40 bison being harvested, it seems kind of hopeless sometimes.”

Guedo said they installed fences at some of the main crossings in 2016, when the population was at its lowest, to encourage the bison to stay in the park. At that time, she said, harvesting rates were also very high.