The Next Great Hunt

The Great Hunt of the late 1800s nearly drove bison to extinction. Now, a new kind of hunt may be the only way to save them.

By Jim Robbins

The widespread domestication of bison could also be driving these types of behavior changes, says Freese. Ranchers select for certain traits all the time, which is akin to man-made evolution. “Ranchers might get rid of a cantankerous bull, for example,” says Freese. “Breeding bison to be docile and meaty are the kinds of things that affect the wildness of the species.”

Dave Carter, executive director the National Bison Association, the trade group for people who raise bison, says that isn’t so. “The ranchers I know don’t want their animals to be docile. [The bison] are equipped to survive, and they want to keep them that way. They don’t want them just to be meat wagons.”

The Next Great Hunt—this time to save the bison species—is well underway. Across the country, biologists are testing bison and gaining a clearer understanding of which herds have polluted genomes. The challenges now involve separating hybridized bison from those with no detectable levels of cattle genes—and making sure they remain separate.

Isolation is the best way to assure purity, but it doesn’t necessarily guarantee the bison genome will remain cattle-free. Yellowstone National Park has the largest of the near-pure herds, with more than 3,000 animals, an invaluable genetic reservoir. Officials there had a scare when a lone bull from a nearby bison ranch wandered into the park, mixing with the herd. They removed him from the population before he could pass on his heritage.

Now the American Prairie Foundation is working to ensure the bison and their offspring remain pure, as they are seed stock for what they hope will become a free-ranging herd tens of thousands strong. That massive herd may well one day roam the hundreds of thousands—or even millions—of acres the Foundation is buying and rehabilitating. It might be a pipe dream to think that the far-flung refuges currently being developed will connect, allowing the great herds to return. But scientists know the best bet for the future of the Plains lies in the tiniest of things—the genome of the purest bison.

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