Genetically Pure Bison in North America
Most people have at least a passing familiarity with the history of bison (Bison bison) in North America. More specifically, people have probably heard about the almost complete eradication of the species from the continent due to massive overharvest fueled by market and colonial interests, and enabled by a complete lack of management.
Perhaps fewer people are familiar with the bison as a success story, the one that is ongoing and will hopefully have a happier ending.
The bison is colloquially known in North America as buffalo. Many people will know them as the animal that was shot by the thousands for its hide by European settlers, and as an important part of Indigenous cultures in North America. There is no genetic difference between what people refer to as buffalo and the scientific classification of the species as bison.
To make a long story short, North America had an estimated historical bison population of perhaps more than 30 million, ranging across the continent, east to west, north to south. By the closing of the 19th century, the bison population had been reduced to about 1,000 individuals and its range had been greatly restricted due to human population and agricultural expansion.
Thanks to the dedication and efforts of hunting and conservation organizations to reintroduce the bison to parts of its historical range and ensure its continued protection, we now once again have a stable, though still greatly reduced, population of about 500,000 individuals in North America. In fact, I’m proud to know that Canada initiated regulated hunting for bison as early as 1894, and established Buffalo National Park in 1909 to protect a population of bison. While this is great, the bison’s current range is still historically restricted and they live in fairly isolated pockets, many of which are privately owned (only about 4% of bison are considered wild).
A large, symbolic, nostalgic, and fascinating animal, scientific studies and careful ongoing management of bison is important for the health and continued recovery of the species on a continental scale. Some interesting new research out of Utah State University, led by Dr. Dustin Ranglack, has identified a herd of bison that are “genetically pure”.
The grazing lands of free ranging bison often overlap those of domestic cattle. In addition to some deliberate attempts to cross breed wild bison and domestic cattle, these interactions have created a situation where most bison in North America have at least a degree of what is referred to as genetic introgression from domestic cattle. However, the Henry Mountains in Utah are apparently home to a herd that is genetically pure bison. The herd is also free from brucellosis, an infectious disease that is a concern in domestic livestock. This is an exciting discovery for the future of bison conservation, because according to Dr. Ranglack, this herd could represent “a really important source for potential reintroduction projects that are trying to restore bison to a large portion of their native range.”
Ongoing wildlife research is critical for informed and effective management. This is an exciting piece of research that is an integral part of the successful model of wildlife management we have in North America. It’s important not just for species like bison, but for all North American wildlife and habitat, that we continue to advocate for dedicated funding for wildlife research and conservation efforts. If we want to continue to enjoy truly wild life on this continent, whether for viewing or hunting purposes, we need to see the bigger picture.
Luckily, the Canadian and American governments caught a glimpse of that bigger picture just in time when it came to the bison…but it was almost too late. We need to ensure we look ahead, are open minded, thoughtful, and learn from our past – both the mistakes and the successes. I’m proud of the management model we have on this continent, and I support the individuals and organizations responsible for making the decisions that ensure I can continue interacting with wildlife.