Volume 12, Number 14 March 18, 2005

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Work on bison reproduction may help recovery of species

By Colleen MacPherson

Murray Woodbury

Murray Woodbury stands beside a bison skeleton in the WCVM. By spring, he may be standing beside a live animal at the Goodale Farm.

Photo by Colleen MacPherson

As early as April, transport trucks could be making a special delivery to the Goodale Research Farm that will let the University play a key role in ensuring the recovery and health of a species of animal now considered threatened by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada.

That delivery to the University’s research farm, eight kilometres southeast of Saskatoon, would be some 50 young wood bison that collectively represent a very valuable resource, according to Murray Woodbury, assistant professor and Specialized Livestock Research Chair at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine. The animals embody the genetic diversity of a species that, by 1900, had been reduced to just 250 animals. Although there have been setbacks, a concerted effort by various agencies to manage the wild herds and assist in their recovery has proven to be successful. And Woodbury said the work done with the bison at the U of S will help ensure the ultimate survival of the species.

Wood bison

Wood bison

He explained the University is negotiating with the government of the Northwest Territories for the bison, which are part of the eight-year-old Hook Lake Wood Bison Recovery Project. The Hook Lake animals are particularly important because they are genetically unique and are key to maintaining the genetic diversity of wild populations. Loss of that diversity can result in undesirable inbreeding effects and can hamper the growth and reproductive success of the species.

Today, the carefully monitored herd has reproduced in captivity to the point where it has outgrown its space. The need to move some of the bison gives the University the opportunity to contribute to maintaining the herd’s health by adapting knowledge about cattle reproduction to bison, said Woodbury.

“Wouldn’t it be nice if we had the reproductive techniques we needed to continue to grow healthy animals?”

Woodbury sees the project as having two phases. The first would be a detailed study of bison reproductive physiology, about which little is known. Many assisted reproductive techniques have to be carefully timed in the female cycle and while “we’ve worked all that out in cattle, we haven’t characterized the ovarian cycle in bison yet.” The second phase of the work would involve adapting those techniques for bison.

This kind of species recovery work is still in its infancy and Woodbury is not one to “count my chickens before they hatch”, but the University is well positioned to be a major player. In fact, it already has a specialized livestock handling facility next to the Goodale farm, he said. Built in co-operation with Saskatchewan Agriculture and Food, the facility includes land fenced specifically for bison, a barn and handling equipment. As part of the negotiations, the Northwest Territories government will fund the cost of shipping the animals and their maintenance costs for five years.

Woodbury has been invited to Hook Lake in April to watch the bison roundup and expects the animals to arrive before summer. It will be a “tremendous opportunity” for the University not only to highlight the Goodale facility and the expertise that exists on campus, but also to produce “spinoffs that will accrue to the commercial bison industry across the country”. Everyone involved with bison is interested in producing healthy animals “because bison are bison whether they’re farmed or wild”.

For more information, contact communications.office@usask.ca

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