(This version of the story corrects name of project manager to Karsten, not Kasper, in paragraph 5)
By Nia Williams
CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) - Parks Canada has reintroduced a herd of plains bison to the country's oldest national park in Banff, Alberta, officials said on Monday, more than 130 years after the iconic North American animal last grazed the eastern slopes of the Canadian Rockies.
The conservation team moved 16 bison from a protected herd in central Alberta into an enclosed pasture in Banff National Park in the west of the province last week.
The herd will stay under observation in the remote Panther Valley until summer 2018, when the animals will be released into the full 1,189-square-km (460-square-mile) reintroduction zone in the park's eastern valleys.
Parks Canada said bison were once dominant grazers and that bringing them back would restore their missing role in Banff's ecosystem.
"This would be one of only four plains bison herds in North America that would be fully interacting with their predators and shaping the ecosystem as they did over a hundred years ago," said Karsten Heuer, the bison reintroduction project manager.
Those predators will include wolves and bears native to the park.
Ten pregnant female bison and six young bulls were disease tested and radio collared before being herded into five shipping containers and driven 400 km (250 miles) cross Alberta by truck. The conservation team taped rubber hoses to their horns to prevent the animals injuring each other while in transit.
Since the Panther Valley is not accessible by road, officials attached the shipping containers by long line to a helicopter and flew them in one at a time for the last 25 km (16 miles).
Vast bison herds of up to 30 million animals once migrated freely across North America. The animal was nearly hunted to extinction, and rangers estimate bison have not grazed in Banff National Park since before it was established in 1885.
Bison have great spiritual meaning for North America's aboriginal groups, having once provided an important source of food, clothing and shelter. The reintroduction also coincides with the 150th anniversary of Canada's 1867 confederation into a federal union.
"This is a historic moment and a perfect way to mark Canada's 150," Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna said in a statement. "Not only are bison a keystone species and an icon of Canada's history, they are an integral part of the lives of indigenous peoples."
Editing by Peter Cooney and Bill Trott