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Maricella Miranda, St. Paul Pioneer Press, Published August 17 2012

Conservationists at work on Minnesota bison genetics

LUVERNE, Minn. – Inches from a human observer, bison graze the prairie as their tails whip at flies.

A bull sticks close to a cow, claiming her for the coming breeding season. New moms camouflage their calves while their yearlings nap in the tall, windblown grass.

The prairie looks untouched with its native Minnesota cactuses, bedrock and wallows of dirt. Some of the dusty mud depressions are thousands of years in the making.

This is life on the prairie, home to Minnesota’s only public bison herd.

Nearly 100 bison roam a fenced area at Blue Mounds State Park in Luverne, about four hours from the Twin Cities in the southwest corner of the state.

State conservationists now want to use the herd to help build genetic diversity, creating healthier North American bison, and someday to bring the native giants to more state parks – where experts say they once lived. This could make Minnesota pivotal in conserving an animal that was near extinction, said Craig Beckman, park manager at Blue Mounds.

“The overall purpose is to preserve and conserve the bison genetic line of the United States,” Beckman told the St. Paul Pioneer Press. “If we can achieve that in Minnesota, we can also achieve becoming a real player in bison conservation.”

The Minnesota Zoo and the state Department of Natural Resources announced in July that they would partner to breed bison from federal herds with the state’s herd.

The first bison could come this fall from Oklahoma and South Dakota.

The goal is to create a “metapopulation” – in which a group of animals is divided into smaller groups, depending on their genetics, and allowed to breed in hopes of a more diversified species.

In Minnesota, the state’s herd would eventually grow to about 500 bison but would be managed as smaller groups at various state parks and the zoo, said Ed Quinn, natural resource program consultant for the DNR.

Why are bison genetics so important?

When the population crashed in the late 1880s, mostly because of hunting and disease, fewer than 200 bison remained in the country, said Jim Derr, professor of genetics at Texas A&M University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. He specializes in bison genetics.

A handful of ranchers saved the few remaining animals, Derr said. At the time, the ranchers experimented with breeding cattle with the bison — which helped save the population but also permanently transformed bison genetics.

Today, nearly all of the country’s bison are descendants of those animals, and most bison still carry a fraction — less than 1 percent — of cattle genes.

One of the goals of the new project is to rid the Blue Mounds herd of its foreign cattle lineage.

We want to “preserve the pure genetic line of the bison,” Beckman said.

The Blue Mounds herd started in 1961 with two bulls and a cow on 50 acres of pasture.

The species is called “bison bison,” not to be confused with the buffalo species, such as water buffalo native to parts of Asia.

Today, there’s room for about 100 animals on 533 acres. To keep the herd a good size, the park invites the public to buy bison at a yearly fall auction. About 35 animals are sold each year.

New bulls have regularly been brought in to inseminate the cows and spread their genes. A cow breeds with a single bull each year.

They breed in the fall; gestation lasts nine months and ends in the spring.

The state had records showing what parks the Blue Mounds bison came from but had never tested their genetics before last year, when Minnesota Zoo staff helped park staff round up the animals to collect blood and hair samples.

The samples were sent to Derr and his team at Texas A&M.

The testing costs $67 per animal, Quinn said. State lottery funds helped pay for the first round of testing, he said, but future testing will likely come from the state parks’ working capital fund, which helps pay for natural resource management.

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