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DNA tests to start on zoo's bison

Posted: August 7, 2014 - 3:07pm  |  Updated: August 7, 2014 - 3:15pm

HUTCHINSON, — Across developed Kansas, with its roads and communities, homes and farms, it’s hard to imagine that millions of bison once roamed freely across these plains.

Before “progress” nearly wiped them out, 75 million of the Kansas state mammals lived in the wild, The Hutchinson News reported (http://bit.ly/1pCDUA2 ).

These days, however, this public bison herd’s home on the range is inside the confines of the Hutchinson Zoo — way across a pond. Many zoo visitors don’t even see them.

However, new Hutchinson Zoo Director John Wright envisions the zoo as a Kansas educational center that includes bison, and he wants the city zoo to be part of a growing national effort to bring back a more genetically pure line of the breed.

“I really see this as a story to tell,” Wright said.

There isn’t an immediate need, he added.

“But we are strategizing,” he said of a long-term plan for the bison area. “This won’t happen overnight.”

While not a quick process, the zoo’s effort is starting now. The zoo staff will begin its own cowboy roundup of sorts, gathering up the zoo’s seven head of bison and pulling out some of their hair. DNA testing at Texas A&M will determine if the animals are pure bison or somewhere down the line were bred with cattle.

Wright uses the term “pure” loosely: He does expect to find the zoo’s bison — while they look like bison — to be more of a hybrid. If that is the case, he wants to find homes for the animals and start the process over with a more genetically pure lineage, similar to what can be found at Yellowstone National Park.

If that is realized, Hutchinson Zoo will be part of a growing effort to rebuild bison genetics.

By the late 1800s, bison numbers had reached the brink of extinction with a low of just a few hundred, thanks to hunting, encroachment and other factors, said Keith Aune, bison program coordinator at the Wildlife Conservation Society, whose parks include the Bronx Zoo.

The society’s story starts with its successful effort in the early 1900s to help the American bison recover on the plains, which was led by advocate and conservationist William Hornaday, who helped create the society’s forerunner — the New York Zoological Society. In 1905, he, with the support of Theodore Roosevelt, worked to establish the American Bison Society at the Bronx Zoo, where 40 bison were living.

There are several hundred thousand bison across the United States in preserves, zoos, and raised by ranchers for meat, Aune said. Bison have been saved because of breeding with cattle, although by doing so the purity of the herd was becoming lost.

Despite the movement for purity, Aune stressed that while some of the nation’s herd has cattle genes, bison still look like bison and act like bison. Also, it’s not practical to cull them all just because they have a bit of cattle ancestry. Still, he noted, it is important to save the bison genome.

Only two herds are considered wholly genuine bison — herds at Yellowstone and Ellis Island National Park, Aune said. He said there are 62 conservation herds across the nation with about 20,000 head of bison. These herds are largely pure — with two percent or less cattle genetics.

“We don’t want to lose diversity at the expense of a few cattle” genetics, he said, adding, “We want to preserve the purity, but being reasonable. That is where we are at. At some point, do the best we can with the genetics we have got.”

Zoos are one way to help preserve the genetics of bison, Aune said.

The Wildlife Conservation Society’s Bronx Zoo has been working with embryo transfer to help populate zoos with Yellowstone genetics, he said. Offspring could be used to populate other zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

Meanwhile, the Wildlife Conservation Society also is in the running for 145 Yellowstone bison, Aune said. According to an Associated Press story, the society requested 30 bison for this herd for its zoos in the Bronx, Queens and Ohio. The animals would be used to establish nucleus herds to promote future conservation.

There is also some conservation happening in Kansas. In May, the Nature Conservancy donated a 1 1/2-year-old bison to the Sedgwick County Zoo, said Rob Manes, director of the Kansas group. “Windy” was born on the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve near Strong City. The herd there came from Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota, where bison genetics are preserved.

The conservancy has 11 herds around the United States, totaling 6,000 animals, Manes said. A few, however, are hybrid herds, including bison on the Smoky Hill Ranch in northwest Kansas.

The Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve project has 28 head of bona fide bison on 1,100 acres, Manes said.

“From the Nature Conservancy standpoint, the purebred American bison, they constitute a wildlife resource that is worth conserving — part of the diversity of wildlife and plants we want to conserve,” Manes said. “While it may not be essential to the existence of bison, the genetic purity is part of the ecological richness of our planet that we want to take care of.”

That is the way the Hutchinson Zoo’s Wright sees it. Because the zoo is AZA-accredited, he wants conservation of the breed to be part of the zoo’s mission.

Bison first came to the zoo in 2000 with Sioux, who is now 15 years old, said zoo curator Kiley Buggeln. The zoo has six other bison ranging from age 6 to 11.

Wright said it is a clean slate of what could transpire if the zoo looks at more of a purebred herd, which could help populate other zoos if it materializes. For instance, zoo officials might decide to revamp the bison area before more bison call it home. That might include a long-range plan to give the public access to the bison via the train’s railroad.

“What we are doing here is not a random thing,” he said. “It’s a strategized plan for population genetics — sustainable and stable.”

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