Saving Our Bison

Creating the world’s first bison genome biobank

Our goal

With the creation of a bison genome biobank, we can store semen and embryos that would allow researchers to produce disease-free bison calves using artificial insemination and embryo transfer. These genetics could be rescued from isolated and genetically-critical conservation herds.

Based on current research, it is possible to produce 300 live bison calves over a five-year period. By restoring genetic diversity and eliminating risk of disease, pure bison may be re-introduced to their former vast range in sustainable numbers.

“Nature underpins every person’s wellbeing and ambitions — from health and happiness to prosperity and security. Everything that has built modern human society, with its benefits and luxuries, is provided by nature — and we will continue to need these natural resources to survive and thrive … As we better understand our reliance on natural systems, it’s clear that nature is not just ‘nice to have.'”

World Wildlife Fund Living Planet Report, 2018

Where the buffalo roamed

There are two ways in which a species may become extinct — when the last individual dies, or by hybridization. North American bison, the largest and most iconic land mammal in the western hemisphere, are threatened by both.

Thirty million bison once roamed the continent, from Texas to the Canadian Arctic. By 1890, the species was on the brink of extinction with fewer than 350 animals left in existence. Both plains and wood bison were once keystone species — species upon which an ecosystem and its inhabitants depend.

Bison have a special role in the history, culture and economy of North America and have been revered by indigenous peoples for generations as both a critical resource and for spiritual and cultural connections. The decline of the bison has not been due to natural causes; it is a result of over-harvesting by humans. The decline of the bison has affected every aspect of the central plains and boreal regions, and is paralleled by the decline of First Nations people.

Reduction of the bison population by greater than 99 per cent has resulted in a crisis of genetic diversity. With fewer traits available in the gene pool, the resilience and long-term viability of the remnant population is compromised and may fail to adapt to climate change, disease or a shift in available resources. Population bottlenecks that span several generations — as has been the fate of bison — render a species particularly vulnerable to catastrophic loss.

Recent growth of commercial bison farming accounts for the vast majority of the bison population in North America today, but because of cross-breeding with domestic cattle and between subspecies, these hybrid bison do not represent a genetic resource for restoring the species. In fact, they represent the threat of perpetuated hybridization.

In Canada, only 1,500 plains bison exist in five non-hybrid conservation herds, all of which descended from only 50 individuals rescued during the early 1900s. Wood bison are indigenous to Canada, but the largest population in the world — located in Wood Buffalo National Park — is afflicted by cattle diseases (brucellosis and tuberculosis) introduced during the early 1900s. Today, recovery of the bison species is hampered by the following issues:

  • the existence of small isolated populations
  • endemic diseases transmissible to livestock and humans
  • hybridization

Social, political and scientific commitments are needed to address these problems.

“Since time immemorial, hundreds of generations of the first peoples of the First Nations of North America have come and gone since before and after the melting of the glaciers that covered North America. For all those generations Buffalo has been our relative. Buffalo is part of us and We are part of Buffalo culturally, materially, and spiritually. Our ongoing relationship is so close and so embodied in us that Buffalo is the essence of our holistic eco-cultural life-ways.”

Intertribal Buffalo Treaty, 2014

Bringing back the bison

In 1906, the Government of Canada purchased the largest and last free-ranging plains bison herd in existence from Montana rancher Michel Pablo. It was one of the greatest wildlife preservation efforts in global history, bringing bison back from the brink of extinction.

While this monumental effort is worth celebrating, mistakes were made and more work needs to be done. Exactly 100 years later, in 2006, the Bison Research Group was established at the University of Saskatchewan. This consortium was composed of federal, provincial and territorial governments, Canadian universities and zoological parks, commercial bison producers, and the World Wildlife Fund. The group’s principal objective: to study the reproductive biology of bison and develop assisted-reproductive techniques that would allow researchers to create and use a bison genome biobank — a world-class facility to store and preserve the bison genome.

In 2016 — 10 years after its creation — the Bison Research Group produced the world’s first bison offspring from frozen embryos and semen, documenting the feasibility of creating a bison genome biobank to address the barriers to species recovery. We now have an unprecedented opportunity to enter a new phase of bison conservation before time runs out.

We now have a potential solution to a long-standing conservation dilemma. There are enough pure bison today to ensure the survival of the species — if we start now.

Creating the world’s first bison genome biobank

Development of a bison biobank is a world-first and will be a rare example of a functional biobank that will not only restore the species, but do so in a way that will eliminate the diseases representing a risk to wildlife, domestic livestock, and humans. A bison biobank will benefit international conservation agencies (federal, provincial, local, non-governmental organizations), national and aboriginal heritage groups, commercial enterprises whose activities encroach on bison habitat (mining and oil industries), and the commercial bison livestock industry.

The University of Saskatchewan is uniquely positioned to lead this important work. Situated at the centre of Canada’s historical bison range, it is the only Canadian institution to have all of the health sciences located on one campus, and its multi-disciplinary research team (the Bison Research Group) has worldwide prominence in biomedical research and bison conservation.

This research is strongly aligned with two University signature research areas:  

  • Indigenous Peoples: Engagement and Scholarship
  • One Health: Solutions at the Animal-Human-Environment Interface

Both research areas emphasize the interconnectivity between animal, human and ecosystem health. They also reinforce the centrality of the relationship between bison and indigenous peoples. One Health fosters collaboration and communication across scientific disciplines building relationships and partnerships at local, national and global levels to prevent and control the spread of disease, improve food production and safety, provide access to clean water, and encourage sustainable land usage.

We propose a two-phased approach with a five-year timeframe.  

 

Phase 1 | Develop a bison genome biobank — April 2019 to March 2020

• Collect initial genetic material to initiate the bison biobank

Researchers will use the collected genetic material to produce offspring at the USask Native Hoofstock Centre. These animals will ultimately serve as founder stock for distribution to recognized bison conservation herds.

This phase of the project will be enabled by industry partnering through the first-ever Mitacs Industry Sabbatical at USask, which will afford the necessary time and resources for the principal investigator, Dr. Gregg Adams, a world-renowned expert in reproductive biology. 

• Develop a five-year workplan and budget for the creation and implementation of the bison biobank 

 

Phase 2 | Implement the bison genome biobank — January 2020 to December 2025

Use the genetic material of the bison biobank to produce 300 live bison calves over a five-year period by artificial insemination and embryo transfer

Harvest more genetics from wild herds and use this genetic material to produce disease-free bison calves using semen and embryos derived from these isolated and genetically-critical conservation herds

Develop federal regulatory documentation of the effectiveness of embryo techniques to remove disease risk of an at-risk species

Collaborate with private and public sector partners to create a business model for the long-term success of a functional bison biobank, and as guidance and a gold standard for use by conservation agencies.

 

Research the world needs

The development of a bison biobank is the first step in a new, exciting phase of bison recovery, providing a solution to a longstanding and complex problem of a species at risk.

Working together with First Nations, all orders of government, industry, scientists and conservation groups, the bison biobank will be a key tool in maintaining the optimal numbers of healthy, genetically-valuable animals in the wild for future generations.

This project offers the advantages of training highly-qualified students and scientists, and establishing university, government, industry and Indigenous partnerships that will be necessary for the long-term management of the bison genetic rescue project.

Perhaps more than any other North American species, bison symbolize the evolution of the continent’s ecosystem and the physical and spiritual health of its human inhabitants.

The development of a bison genome biobank is offered as a first step in a new, exciting phase of bison recovery. Successful establishment and use of this biobank provides a solution to a longstanding and complex problem.

  • The biobank will enable a more effective wildlife management strategy, thereby protecting both the agricultural livestock sector as well as human health and safety.
  • It will help mitigate disease transmission and facilitate the re-establishment of bison throughout their vast former range, restoring the ecological balance of the grassland and boreal forest regions.
  • Commercially, bison producers will benefit from having access to new genetics, improved breeding management, and expanded national and international markets.
  • Revitalizing the bison will have symbolic and material impact for First Nations communities and tourism in and around Canada’s National Parks. Working together with Indigenous people, all levels of government, industry, scientists, policy makers, and conservation groups, the bison biobank will be a key tool in maintaining the optimal numbers of healthy, genetically-valuable animals in the wild for future generations.

Contact

Dr. Gregg Adams, Professor and Researcher
Western College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Saskatchewan 
306-966-7411 | gregg.adams@usask.ca

Appendices available upon request: 

  • Appendix 1: Proposed Phase 1 budget
  • Appendix 2: Prospective partners for the “Saving our Bison” project
  • Appendix 3: Bison-related publications
  • Appendix 4: Bison "firsts" achieved by the Bison Research Group

Additional resources: