Skip to comments.Texas hopes it's found bison to replenish herd
Posted on 08/14/2005 6:59:30 AM PDT by Shawndell Green
Nearly wiped out in the 1800s, the purebreds' newer enemy is a century of inbreeding
QUITAQUE - Pushing a button that activates a feed dispenser on a trailer behind his pickup, Danny Swepston summoned a sound that nearly disappeared from the plains 131 years ago: The thunder of bison hooves.
"Here they come now out of those mesquite trees," said Swepston, who as a wildlife leader for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department is responsible for these bison.
A stampede it wasn't. Fewer than 60 of the fur-covered, humpbacked animals make up the last purebred examples of the Great Southern Bison Herd, which once numbered more than 3 million and roamed throughout the Southwest. Unlike many of today's commercially bred bison, many of which have strains of cattle in their bloodline, the small herd here is a remnant of the bison that were hunted by Native Americans and buffalo hunters 150 years ago.
Protected purebreds As such, they are carefully guarded. They live in a protected park surrounded by 10-foot-high fences and get daily attention from an experienced herdsman. They have regular veterinary care. In extreme summer and winter weather, they get special feed. Despite the excellent care, the Texas herd is in danger of dying out.
The animals are suffering from a malady known as "inbreeding depression" because no outside genes have been introduced into the herd. Some of the bulls are less virile, the cows are growing older, and the number of calves that survive their first spring has declined. "Without new blood, this herd will fade away," said Swepston.
The plight of the Texas herd and what officials are doing about it has attracted the attention of some of the top bison geneticists in the world, and the interest of media tycoon Ted Turner, whose own bison herd exceeds 40,000 head.
Saved by a cattleman The Texas animals are important for several reasons. Besides their roots in the Great Southern Bison Herd, they are directly linked to one of the most important figures of the old West. Legendary cattleman Charles Goodnight, who helped establish the Goodnight-Loving cattle trail and open the plains to ranching, first saved the ancestors of these bison in 1874.
His wife, Mary Ann, was upset that buffalo hunters and disease had reduced the Great Southern herd to just a few hundred animals. Goodnight rounded up five orphaned calves and set them loose on 10,000 acres in the Palo Duro Canyon, in the Texas Panhandle. Eventually, the herd grew to 250 animals, with Goodnight frequently sending some of them away to help start bison herds elsewhere.
For 75 years after Goodnight's death, the herd wandered mostly untended in the canyon, where they were regarded by some as a nuisance because they tore up fences and destroyed crops.
The bison's fortunes improved when James Derr, an expert on bison from Texas A&M University's College of Veterinary Medicine, confirmed that the forgotten herd had a special history. The herd has been under the guardianship of the state since 1997, when officials moved it to a protected compound about 100 miles southeast of Amarillo, just outside the town of Quitaque (pronounced Kitty-Quay, according to a road sign welcoming visitors).
Looking for ancestors Scientists first suspected the herd might be in trouble in 2001 after doing DNA and pregnancy tests. They noted that 15 of the 18 adult females in the herd were pregnant, but when calving time came that spring, just one calf survived.
Derr and Natalie Halbert, a postdoctoral research associate at the college, were already involved in a project to sample DNA from several federal bison herds. They compared DNA from the Texas herd with their other samples and found "the Texas herd had significantly less genetic variation," said Halbert. In simple terms, the animals were headed down the road to extinction because they were all too closely related to one another. "In another 50 years, they'll all be gone if something isn't done," said Derr.
In a normal livestock herd, such problems can swiftly be cured by bringing in animals from elsewhere. But where do you go to find a pureblood example of a species that was close to extinction in the 19th century? Even though the number of bison in North America has been growing in recent years their numbers are estimated at more than 350,000 it was important for conservation reasons to find bison whose bloodlines could somehow be traced to the original Goodnight herd.
Turner to the rescue One of the most difficult challenges obtaining blood and hair samples from beasts that weigh as much as 2,300 pounds and can run for hours at a time at 30 mph had already been taken care of. For several years, Derr's team has spent its winters obtaining DNA samples from various federal and private bison herds.
In their search for eligible bachelors for the Texas herd, Derr's team discovered that the most obvious solution wouldn't work. The last free-roaming herd in the U.S., in Yellowstone National Park, was started in 1903 with the help of three bison from Goodnight's herd. But the Yellowstone herd is now infected with brucellosis, a contagious bacterial disease that disqualifies all those animals.
Derr began looking for other herds with healthy critters that have no traces of cattle DNA but that do have a historical link to the Goodnight herd.
His genetic sleuthing turned up the right stuff in New Mexico at Vermejo Park Ranch, Ted Turner's 588,000-acre getaway. That herd is indirectly related to Goodnight's herd because it was founded about 70 years ago with some bison from Yellowstone. According to Derr and Texas officials, Turner gladly agreed to donate three young bulls for the experiment.
Today, the Turner bulls are in a pen adjacent to the cows from the Texas herd. Recently, the Vermejo bulls peered warily at a visitor before retreating a safe distance. Unlike many of the bulls in the Texas herd, many of which are older, the new kids on the block have sharp horns and appear to be perfect specimens of bisonhood.
Later this month, after calving season is over, one of the Vermejo bulls will be allowed to "socialize with the Texas cows, to see how they get along," Derr says. Next year, officials will examine the DNA of any offspring to see whether the experiment has resulted in the genetic variety necessary to make the herd thrive. If so, the other bulls will be allowed to cross the fence next year.
Eventually, the offspring will be allowed to breed with cows from the original herd, resulting in a bloodline that is still mostly similar to the original Texas herd but with a dash of important diversity.
1830: Bison populations are estimated at 30 million to 40 million, but their numbers begin to decrease as trading bison hides becomes more popular. 1858: Disease wipes out the middle herd of bison, dividing the bison into a northern and southern herd. The two herds never join again. 1866: Charles Goodnight attempts to start a herd with six bison but is unsuccessful. 1876: Goodnight raises bison calves on his ranch in a successful effort to preserve them. J.A. Ranch was home to the bison for many years. 1930 : American Bison Society and the government work to create eight national herds. 1998: Last of the wild bison in Texas are captured from the J.A. Ranch and moved to Caprock Canyon State Park. These bison are descendants of the Charles Goodnight herd. Source: Texas Parks and Wildlife Department
Nice story for a Sunday AM.
Believe it or not, Catalina Island out here in so. california had a very large free roaming bison heard. How you ask? They were brought over for a movie shoot in the 1920's and never rounded up. I dont know how many there are now but 30 years ago there were several hundred.
I am hoping that it continues to grow in popularity and starts supplanting beef as a product. I can only get it in specialty stores right now. Bison burgers are really good.
They also had the wild boars from the movie still roaming the north side of Catalina island as well. I ran into one when I was camping on the north side of the island in the 80's.
Good night, what a story!
This is a good work. The species should be saved for it's own merit but it also is true that bison is delicious. I live in a part of Connecticut (believe it or not) where I have a choice of three restaurants that serve bison and I am only 30 miles from a working bison ranch.
Harvey Wallbanger Jr. BUMP!
Has anyone seen HW Jr? He is a show buffalo that does stunts and races and beats this old gray horse in a 200 meter dash. Pretty neat show to watch.
Am I the only one that thinks the breathless dithering trying to find "Goodnight bloodlines" to introduce back into this herd is stupid?
They act like it's a seperate species. The herd needs some diversity, but not just any diversity, it HAS to be more of the same diversity.
PETA = People Eating Tasty Animals
It should be a crime to overcook a good steak.
Best end for a cow or bison is sizzling on a hot grill.
Some salt, pepper and a loaded baked potato on the side. YumYum.
Save the rabbit food for the Vegans.
It was in the story. Other blood lines have been mixed with cow and are not pure bison.
Better protection than our southern border.
1858: Disease wipes out the middle herd of bison, dividing the bison into a northern and southern herd. The two herds never join again.
What was the disease I wonder, besides lead poisoning?
Are you sure it was from purebreed stock? I heard real bison has a strongh gamey taste and kinda tough while those that are interbreed with angus cows have a smoother taste. I'm willing to say it was a mixed breed. Just my opinion.
Probably so but I don't care if it was Great Dane, it was delicious.
If I remember my history, the division between the northern herd and the southern herd came about not by disease, but by the transcontinental railroad. For some reason the herds refused to cross the tracks and broke up into the two groups. I have seen the same reaction in cattle.
If we loose these, there are still large numbers of Wood Buffalo in Canada and Alaska.
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