Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Bison Purity

North American Bison - Library.sandiegozoo.org
There is good news out of Utah where a genetically pure herd of bison has been discovered.  Following the near extinction of the species during the 1800s, conservation has maintained a few herds in Canada and Yellowstone National Park.  Due to intermixing with cattle, most herds have more than a little domestic cattle genes in their bloodstreams.  The DNA studies demonstrate that this herd in the Henry Mountains of southern Utah is unique.
"We’ve got a very, very special case in that the Henry Mountains bison is actually in fact the only population of bison in existence which is now both genetically pure and is free of the disease brucellosis and is free-ranging on public land co-mingling with cattle and is legally hunted.  So, we have this very unique population which is one of a kind. It’s a large credit to the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, the Bureau of Land Management, and the local Henry Mountains Grazing Association. Over the years, they worked together to conserve this resource.” Dr. Johan du Toit, professor of ecology, Utah State University
The sad story of the near extinction of a species that once ranged across the United States in numbers estimated at 30 to 60 million beasts is summarized in this article from the National Humanities Center.  Much like the extinction of the megafauna 13,000 years ago, it is due to the confluence of many factors.  A period of drought in the early 1800s may have been a factor.  This was followed by increasing  hunting pressures by Native Americans using improved methods such as the development of the bow and arrow, introduction of Spanish horses and finally metal and guns.

The westward push of settlers and the extension of the railroads after the civil war increased market hunting for hides, meat and even delicacies such as bison tongue.  Any recognition of the diminishing numbers was numbed by governmental policy encouraging the total elimination of bison as a way to force settlement and agriculture upon the Native American tribes who posed unwanted competition for western lands.*

There are an estimated 500,000 bison in the US, the vast majority raised commercially in herds for meat consumption.  Less than 20,000 are considered wild, mostly in Yellowstone and Canada, and most of these have some degree of cattle genes.  The Henry Mountain bison represent a resource for reestablishing a pure strain of the original beasts that once roamed the country including our Ozarks.

* American University, Washington D.C.

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