The purebred bison reintroduced in full growth in Saskatchewan. meadow


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CLAYDON, Saskatchewan. – It’s like they never left. Eleven years after 50 purebred plains bison were reintroduced to a rolling patch of prairie grasses and sagebrush in the southwest corner of Saskatchewan, the herd is booming.

In 2003, the shaggy beasts were trucked from Elk Island National Park in Alberta to Old Man on His Back Prairie and Heritage Conservation Area, a 5,300 hectare parcel of prairie south of Swift Current.

There are now 70 females and four bulls in the herd. The success has meant that the program can essentially make it profitable by sending calves to other areas that need a new infusion of purebred animals and to producers who are also trying to increase their numbers.

“They really look at home when you see them grazing outside,” says Natalie Nikiforuk, manager of natural areas for the Nature Conservancy of Canada, which owns the land with the Government of Saskatchewan.

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“We actually find quite a few bison bones in the pasture so it’s pretty neat to see them roaming here over 100 years ago.”

It is estimated that there were once around 60 million bison in North America, but the animals were almost wiped out about a century ago when they were hunted for nothing more than their tongues or horns.

At the turn of the last century, the last large herd of wild Montana plains bison was purchased by the Canadian government and moved to what would become Elk Island Park.

In recent years, bison have been shipped from Elk Island across North America in an attempt to restore animals to the landscape.

READ MORE: 100 Wood Bison Fly to Alaska to Help Restore Species

What makes this herd special, Nikiforuk says, is that they are genetically pure. Hair and blood samples were sent to Texas A&M University in 2007 and there was no trace of bovine DNA in the animals.

“This has been a real problem with the bison species – the interbreeding between them and the cattle,” she says.

Nearby Grasslands National Park also received a shipment of 71 Elk Island bison in late 2005.

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Nikiforuk says this offers an opportunity for genetic diversity.

“We were kind of hoping to work with Grasslands National Park and Elk Island and exchange animals between herds to maintain genetic diversity,” she says. “It’s the only thing you have to worry about when you have something that is genetically pure.”

READ MORE: Federal government announces return of bison to Banff National Park

Nikiforuk says the Old Man on His Back herd is of a healthy size and she doesn’t see it growing larger than around 100 animals.

Staff are re-evaluating the land to calculate how much grass there is and how many bison can be taken care of.

“We don’t really feed our bison extra, so they really depend on the grass in the landscape, so we can only have a limited number,” says Nikiforuk.

“There are only a limited number of animals the grass can handle.”

© 2015 The Canadian Press

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Jeanetta J. Stewart

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