New technology in bison genetic testing may improve management practices

CUSTER STATE PARK, S.D. – The Custer State Park bison herd was part of a Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences study that compared DNA from historical bison herds in the United States to 1,842 domestic cattle.

“There’s like a slight strain that they go back and what they’re still trying to figure out is, is that naturally occurring in bison or was there really an integration at some point in time. So I mean, that’s part of what some of the study looks at is as kind of that whole genotype of what’s going on with those genetics and the different bison,” said Matt Snyder, Custer State Park Superintendent.

The study which was published in the journal Scientific Reports found that all bison in North America carry small portions of DNA of domestic cattle. The study updates previous findings from 20 years ago that revealed that only a few herds existed that were thought to be free of bovine ingression, including the herd in Yellowstone National Park.

The Custer State Park bison herd originated in 1914, when they purchased 36 head from the Scottie Phillips buffalo herd.

Phillips was a South Dakota rancher who started his own bison herd in 1899, from the Fred Dupree herd.

Dupree, a French Canadian fur trader was married to a Minniconjou Lakota woman named Good Elk Woman. The Dupree family felt compelled to save the bison after watching the transformation of the Plains Indian culture due to the Black Hills gold rush and the decimation of the sacred herds.  Fred and his son Pete Dupree captured five bison calves during the last big  American Indian bison hunt on the Grand River in 1881.

In 1906, Phillips appealed to the U.S. Congress to help save bison referring to them as ‘the symbol of the west’. He was permitted to lease 3,500 acres of unclaimed U.S. Government land to serve as a reserve for his growing bison herd.

The Custer State Park bison herd was added to in the 1940’s and 1950’s from the Wind Cave National Park bison herd and the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

“They didn’t have a way to surplus their their animals at the time and so there was about eight to nine hundred head over the course of about nine years that were actually hazed up into Custer Park so we have some similar genetic backgrounds with Wind Cave because of that event,” said Chad Kremer, Custer State Park Bison Herd Manager and President of the National Bison Association. “And then there was just a couple other instances where animals, outside animals were brought in. In the mid-forties there was one year where about 50 head were brought in from Pine Ridge Reservation at that time. And then other than that, it’s pretty much been a closed herd, especially in the last 50 to 60 years.”

Custer State Park uses a breeding population formula with high bull numbers to help decrease the changes of inbreeding in their herd and to manage their herd numbers. In the 1980’s they did blood type sampling of the herd and then again approximately ten years later.  The park found that they had lost a few of the original blood types and came up with a plan to preserve the herds unique genetic concordance.

“It was a ten year project that they did where they selected and tested the bull calf crop and then a year later after analyzing that if there were any blood types that were not that frequent, they would select those bulls for breeding bulls to go back out,” said Kremer. “After blood typing then technology changed to DNA typing and we have done herd sampling a few times, several years apart from each other and it was identified that the park herd, we did have some cattle integration. We’ve been working on a plan over the course of time to reduce or eliminate that but the technology is always advancing. Even in my 20 years here at the park, I mean there’s been probably three significant changes in the technology.”

The new findings of the Texas A&M study could change management practices within the bison community and actually make conservation efforts of closed bison herds like Custer State Park easier since they will no longer need to be isolated from other herds. For private producers the study provides information to structure genetically management practices to include more genetic diversity.

“It’s early enough in the discussion that I’m not sure where it’s going to go between conservation groups and the private producers, but, but it definitely may change some things as far as management objectives,” said Kremer. “There’s still some questions out there. As far as, we know, cattle and bison are actually pretty closely related.”

The study suggests that the well-intentioned efforts of ranchers in the 1800’s wanting to preserve the iconic animal may have left a complicated genetic legacy through intentional or unintentional cross breeding between the two species. Although without their efforts it is possible the bison would have been extinct.

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