New technology in genetic testing of bison can improve management practices

CUSTER STATE PARK, SD – The buffalo herd at Custer State Park was part of a study by the University of Texas A&M in veterinary medicine and biomedical sciences that compared DNA from historic buffalo herds in the United States to 1,842 domestic cattle.

“There’s a slight tension that they’re going back, and what they’re still trying to figure out is whether it’s natural in bison or whether there’s really been integration at some point in time. So I mean, that’s part of what part of the study looks like, it’s kind of the whole genotype of what’s going on with that genetics and the different bison, “said Matt Snyder, Custer State Park manager.

The study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, found that all bison in North America carry small pieces of DNA from livestock. The study updates previous findings from 20 years ago, which revealed that there were only a few herds thought not to have entered cattle, including the herd in Yellowstone National Park.

The buffalo herd in Custer State Park originated in 1914, when they bought 36 heads of the Scottie Phillips buffalo herd.

Phillips was a ranch in South Dakota that created its own herd of bison in 1899 from Fred Dupree’s herd.

Dupree, a French-Canadian fur trader, was married to a Miniconju Lakota woman named Good Elk Woman. The Dupree family was forced to save the buffalo after watching the transformation of Indian culture on the plains due to the Black Hills gold rush and the destruction of sacred herds. Fred and his son Pete Dupree captured five buffalo calves during the last major buffalo hunt by American Indians on the Grand River in 1881.

In 1906, Phillips turned to the US Congress to help save the bison, calling them “the symbol of the West.” He was allowed to lease 3,500 acres of unclaimed land to the US government to serve as a reserve for his growing herd of bison.

The buffalo herd in Custer State Park was added in the 1940s and 1950s by the buffalo herd in Wind Cave National Park and Pine Ridge.

“They had no way of surpassing their animals at the time, and so there were about eight to nine hundred heads in about nine years that were actually obscured in Custer Park, so we have some similar genetic origins to Wind Cave because of that. event, “said Chad Kramer, bison herd manager at Custer State Park and president of the National Bison Association. “And then there were only a few other cases where animals were brought in, outside animals. There was a year in the mid-1940s when about 50 heads were brought from the Pine Ridge Reserve at the time. And besides, it’s an almost closed herd, especially in the last 50 to 60 years. “

Custer State Park uses a formula to breed a population of large numbers of bulls to help reduce changes in inbreeding in their herd and to manage the number of their herd. In the 1980s, they took blood samples from the herd and then again about ten years later. The park found that they had lost several of their original blood types and devised a plan to preserve the unique genetic matching of the herds.

“It was a ten-year project that they did, where they selected and tested the calf bull harvest, and then a year later, after analyzing that if there are blood types that are not so common, they will choose these bulls for breeding. to go back outside, “Kramer said. “After determining the blood type then the technology changed to DNA typing and we did samples from the herd several times, several years apart and it was identified that the herd in the park, we had some integration of cattle. Over time, we have worked on a plan to reduce or eliminate this, but technology is always advancing. Even in my 20 years here in the park, I mean probably three significant changes in technology.

New findings from the Texas A&M study could change bison community management practices and actually facilitate efforts to conserve closed bison herds such as Custer State Park, as they will no longer need to be isolated from other herds. For private producers, the study provides information on structuring genetic management practices to include more genetic diversity.

“It’s early enough in the discussion that I’m not sure where it will go between conservation groups and private producers, but it could definitely change some things in terms of governance goals,” Kramer said. “There are still some questions. As far as we know, cattle and bison are actually quite closely related.

The study suggests that the well-intentioned efforts of breeders in the 1800s to preserve the iconic animal may have left a complex genetic legacy through intentional or involuntary crossbreeding. Although without their efforts, the bison may have disappeared.

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