Scientists and Indigenous leaders team up on project to revive purebred bison population
Bison are not what you think they are.
Bison steaks from the chic downtown restaurant, A&W bison burgers, Bison breasts from the farmer’s market: no bison. The commercial bison – the animals from which today’s bison products are made – are hybrid creatures. Their bison genes are polluted with DNA from cattle.
Purebred bison – direct descendants of animals that covered North America before colonization – are rare, protected, and lacking in genetic diversity. Today, there are only about 1,500 purebred plains bison in Canada’s conservation herds, all descendants of 50 animals that managed to avoid hybridization in the early 1900s.
Today, scientists and Indigenous leaders in Western Canada are trying to revive the purebred bison population. It is a science-based project mixed with cultural significance. Saskatchewan researchers are setting up a genomic biobank that would allow them to store sperm and embryos. They believe they can dramatically deepen the purebred gene pool while rapidly expanding herds.
Scientists estimate that pure breeds could replace hybrids within 20 years. This would improve animal health, improve the environment, create new economic opportunities, and ensure that the animal that many indigenous peoples consider sacred thrives.
“The animal of our ancestors – not a deformity that we created 100 years ago,” says Blaine Favel, a Cree who has worked in politics, academia, business, and Indigenous people and is involved with the project. “He is our spiritual brother. . “
Gregg Adams, an expert in reproductive biology, leads the bison project at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Saskatchewan. Scientists, after a decade of failure, have found a key step: how to take bison sperm and embryos and freeze this genetic material without killing it. The team has also proven that they can artificially inseminate bison by appointment.
The ability to transport and preserve genetic material is essential because it solves two critical issues: biodiversity and biosecurity. Experts believe the 4,500 bison in Yellowstone National Park are purebred; they could give Canada’s isolated bison access to an untapped source of genes. Transporting embryos and sperm across the Canada-US border is simpler than transporting live animals in terms of health and safety regulations. It’s also much cheaper – and easier – than transporting bison bulls, which weigh around 900 kilograms, and bison cows, which weigh around 500 kg, across the continent for breeding.
Dr Adams says he believes the project could produce 300 purebred calves over five years. Add another 15 years and Dr. Adams is hoping there will be enough purebreds to weed out the hybrids and replace them with genetically pure bison. Some settlers about a century ago crossed bison with cattle in hopes of making their herds more resistant to the cold climate.
“It’s not like we’re going back in time thousands of years,” says Dr. Adams. “We have a chance to do it.”
Her team artificially inseminated around 100 bison cows, with a gestation rate of over 40 percent, as they worked to prove that the breeding strategy is viable. Hybrid bison cows will also contribute to the demise of the crossbreed population: a hybrid animal implanted with purebred embryos will produce a purebred calf, allowing scientists to speed up the rate at which it can develop genetically pure herds.
Grasslands National Park, about 330 kilometers southwest of Regina, is home to one of the few herds of purebred bison in Canada. These plains bison come from the Elk Island National Park herd east of Edmonton, but this is not their traditional home. Adriana Bacheschi, who oversees the park, says the prairie plains bison are doing better than their counterparts on the more forested Elk Island.
On their ancestral land, they are healthier, larger and their reproductive rates have increased, says Bacheschi. Key species graze hard and their reintroduction has diversified the plants in the region. Animals in the park are also reverting to their old ways, with bison grouping together, bulls roaming separately, and coyotes following at a distance.
“Sounds fair,” she said. “There are a few of those little old models coming back.”
The herd is growing at around 28 percent per year, says Ms. Bacheschi, in part because it has no natural predators in the park. Parks Canada donates purebred animals to conservation groups and Indigenous peoples to keep the size of its own herds manageable. And that’s where Mr. Favel, the former chancellor of the University of Saskatchewan, comes in. He won a bison lottery run by Parks Canada and received 20 females. He heard about the bison project from college and donated his animals to the effort. The university now has 48 pure plains bison, which are officially called bison bison bison.
The revitalization project, Mr. Favel said, could, at some point in the future, stimulate spiritual and economic reconciliation. The bison are “the most important animal to the Plains Indians that the creator gave us” and the biobank could ensure that the animals are healthy and survive, he says.
Indigenous peoples would have access to authentic bison items such as hides, meat and skulls. They could make, wear and sell traditional bison items such as moccasins, Mr Favel says. He says tourists will want to see authentic bison and shop for traditional items. Hybrid bison meat sells for a premium price and pure bison could exceed that profit margin.
“Our time on this planet is fleeting,” Mr. Favel said. “If we can make it better than what is given to us, then that is a very good accomplishment.”
Scientists do not have enough information to determine whether the free-roaming wood bison of northern Alberta – officially known as the Bison bison athabascae – carry the genes of cattle. Wood bison which are known to be genetically pure are all descended from 23 animals. About 300 purebred wood bison live on Elk Island, on the south side of Highway 16, while about 400 purebred plains bison live on the north side. The University of Saskatchewan has 38 purebred wood bison in its herd.
For the bison project to be a successful component of reconciliation, the strategy must combine traditional values with modern realities, says Leonard Bastien, a traditional knowledge keeper with the Blackfoot Confederacy.
“There would have to be a business plan,” said Bastien, also known as Leonard Weasel Traveler, which is the English translation of his traditional name. “It’s about making money.”
At the same time, the bison – which he also calls buffalo – must end up in an area where he can support himself.
“The lifeblood of my people is the buffalo,” he said.
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