Bad Bison Blood

Biologists fight to protect the buffalo herds of Yellowstone and Wind Cave National Park from interbreeding cattle
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Biologists fight to protect the buffalo herds of Yellowstone and Wind Cave National Park from interbreeding cattle

Recent blood tests indicate that there are only two pure public herds of bison in the U.S.—one in Yellowstone, the other in Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota. All other wild herds exhibit some genes from cows, the unfortunate legacy of mixed herds on the prairie and 120-year-old experiment to create "cattalo" (which, while clearly wrong, sounds delicious).

Bison with cow genes look exactly the same to you and me, and while there's no certain evidence that cow genes create any adverse effects in bison, some research shows bison with no cattle ancestry are bigger, better suited to digesting wild grasses, and less prone to disease than hybrids. Scientists contend that those two herds are the closest thing we have to the original herds that roamed the Great Plains before Europeans arrived, and preserving that remains a priority.

“It’s the closest thing to what used to wander the prairies for thousands of years,” said Tom Farrell, chief of interpretation for Wind Cave National Park. “This is the closest in going back in time and seeing what the Great American Desert was like.”

Unfortunately for the Wind Cave herd, the neighboring herd just over the fence in Custer State Park shows evidence of cattle gene infiltration. To keep the herds pure, scientists at Wind cave will start testing yearlings to make sure they don't possess any intruding cattle genes.

Some argue that pureblood bison are so rare they could win Endangered Species status, but many scientists say cattle ancestry is less than 1 percent in most herds and diminishing.

Fascinating, but I want to hear more about this cattalo thing—it's nearly lunchtime.

—Ted Alvarez

Biologist fight to save rare buffalo bloodlines (Rapid City Journal)

via Cold Splinters

Image Credit: Tambako