Pure­bred bi­son thriv­ing again on Saskatchewan prairie

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - CANADA -

It's as if they never left. Eleven years af­ter 50 pure­bred plains bi­son were re-in­tro­duced to a rolling patch of prairie grass and sage­brush in the south­west cor­ner of Saskatchewan, the herd is thriv­ing.

In 2003, the shaggy beasts were trucked in from Elk Is­land Na­tional Park in Al­berta to the Old Man on His Back Prairie and Her­itage Con­ser­va­tion Area, a 5,300-hectare par­cel of grass­land south of Swift Cur­rent.

There are now 70 fe­males and four bulls in the herd. The suc­cess has meant that the pro­gram can es­sen­tially pay it for­ward by send­ing calves to other ar­eas that need a fresh in­fu­sion of pure­bred an­i­mals and to pro­duc­ers who are try­ing to grow their num­bers as well.

“They re­ally look at home when you seem them out there graz­ing,” says Natalie Nik­i­foruk, the nat­u­ral ar­eas man­ager for the Na­ture Con­ser­vancy of Canada, which owns the land along with the Saskatchewan gov­ern­ment.

“We ac­tu­ally find quite a few bi­son bones out in the pas­ture and so it's kind of neat to see over 100 years ago that they were roam­ing here.”

It's es­ti­mated that there were once about 60 mil­lion bi­son in North Amer­ica, but the an­i­mals were al­most com­pletely wiped out about a cen­tury ago when they were hunted for noth­ing more than their tongues or their horns.

At the turn of the last cen­tury, the last large herd of wild bi­son on the Mon­tana plains was bought by the Cana­dian gov­ern­ment and moved to what would be­come the Elk Is­land park.

In re­cent years, bi­son have been shipped from Elk Is­land around North Amer­ica in an ef­fort to re­store the an­i­mals to the land­scape. What makes this herd spe­cial, Nik­i­foruk says, is that it is ge­net­i­cally pure. Hair and blood sam­ples were sent to Texas A&M Univer­sity in 2007 and there was no trace of any beef DNA in the an­i­mals.

“That's been a real prob­lem with the bi­son species - the in­ter­breed­ing be­tween them and cat­tle,” she says.

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