In a modern scientific first, researchers from the University of Saskatchewan have used reproductive technologies to produce four new baby wood bison, a result that has been years in the making.
“That’s an amazing feat and it has taken a long time to get to this point, but we’re really excited. We have four healthy wood bison calves bouncing around in the pasture,” says Dr. Gregg Adams, professor with the University of Saskatchewan’s College of Veterinary Medicine.
Researchers created in vitro fertilization and cryopreservation programs specifically designed for the wood bison, a species that has teetered on the brink of extinction a number of times over the past century, with infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and brucellosis -originating in nearby cattle herds- currently hampering their population growth.
“Thirty to sixty per cent of the wild bison in the Wood Buffalo National Park, which is the biggest reservoir, are infected with brucellosis and tuberculosis,” says Adams. “That’s hampered their population growth and it has also isolated them.”
All the more reason to celebrate the birth of the now one-month- old baby bison, whose genetic make-up researchers have altered in hopes that they will be more able to withstand exposure to disease. The four bison have been named Moon, Storm, Hope and Fridge by PhD candidate Miriam Cervantes, with Fridge being so far the lone product of cryopreservation.
“Normally you don’t have the recipient cow waiting for you so you have to preserve the embryo and then any moment that is perfect for you, you can transfer these embryos if they are frozen,” says Cervantes.
Historically, wood bison numbered about 170,000 across the forested regions of northwestern Canada, but hunting and disease decimated their population such that by the late 1800s there were less than 300 animals remaining. In 1922, the Canadian government established Wood Buffalo National Park, now straddling northeastern Alberta and southern Northwest Territories, to help preserve the species. This proved to be a successful endeavor up until the wood buffalo started interbreeding with a population of plains bison that had been sent up to Wood Buffalo from the United States in the 1920s.
By mid-century, the wood bison as a unique species was thought to be all but extinct, until a herd of about 200 was discovered in 1957 in the northwest corner of the park. Then in 1965, 23 members of that bison herd were sent to Elk Island National Park just east of Edmonton, where the park’s enclosures have maintained the now numbering herd of 300 as the most genetically pure example of wood bison in the world.
Current estimates put the continent-wide population of this bison at between 5,000 and 7,000 members. Recently, the Northwest Territories Species at Risk Committee placed the wood bison, along with Western toads, boreal caribou and polar bears, on the territory’s species at risk list.
The committee stated that the remaining 2,500 wood bison in the NWT need protection in order for their population to survive. “The numbers are not that high,” said Dr. Suzanne Carrière, alternate chairperson for the committee. “We do have wood bison in the thousands, but they do have quite the possibility to disappear in our children’s lifetime [and] should be accounted for.”