The Bronx Animal Breeding Program Helps Restore Oklahoma’s Bison

On the Osage Nation farm outside of Pohuska, nearly 200 bison roam free on 3,000 acres of the tribe’s ancestral land.

Osage Nation began building its herd about four years ago with a bison donation from the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge and Colorado State University—all of which are 100 percent pure American bison, meaning they have no trace of the livestock’s genetics.

This year the tribe added six more pure American bison species to its herd after collaborating with the Bronx Zoo in New York, which has started a breeding program to help restore the bison.

“There is some belief that pure bison might be more adapted to withstand extreme weather conditions and deep snow, and so what we wanted to do in the Bronx was create as healthy a bison as possible to really help with these recovery programs; not just to increase genetic diversity, but to increase the bison population. pure in animals,” said Zoo General Curator and Associate Director, Dr. Patrick Thomas.

Osage President Jeffrey Standing Beer said the return of the American bison to Osage land is important not only because it is connected to the past, but also because the American bison is a symbol of the future of the Osage Nation.

“I really think it will translate into strengthening the Osage people,” Standing Bear said.

Bison is of great cultural and spiritual significance to the Osage people. They had been a source of food and strength for decades, until they were hunted to the brink of extinction in the late 1860s.

“Bison to me means restoration. Restoring people, restoring culture, restoring land,” said Jason George, a business development specialist at Osage’s Department of Natural Resources, “so there hasn’t been a bison on that land probably hundreds of years ago, so that’s historic.” . Whatever we are doing now is a historical matter for our people and there is no such feeling.”

George said the tribe partnered with the Bronx Zoo at the start of the pandemic and began planning to add to the tribe’s herd.

“We started an intense conversation like everyone else worked from home and formed a friendship and partnership that was beneficial to both of us,” said George.

The Bronx Zoo has a long history of animals. It played a pivotal role in bringing the American bison back from the brink of extinction at the turn of the 20th century.

“As early as 1907, the Bronx Zoo was breeding bison for reintroduction. In fact, the first reintroductions were made here in Oklahoma when we sent 15 bison to the Wichita Reserve Bison,” said Dr. Thomas.

Dr. Thomas said the breeding program ended in 1935, but 10 years ago the zoo decided to start another one. Once again with the goal of re-establishing a pure American bison in the areas they called home.

“There aren’t a lot of opportunities for zoos to get involved in real reintroduction programmes, and this is a concrete example of how zoos can work to be part of conservation efforts,” Thomas said. “And for the prairie, it’s useful because the prairie has evolved so that bison graze on it, so having the bison back in the Osage Nation land helps what the bison are doing to the prairie ecosystem.”

A decade after building its own breeding program, the Bronx Zoo was ready to ship its first set of bison. And just like in 1907, the bison was headed to Oklahoma.

Zoo workers load six bulls to travel 1,400 miles from New York to Oklahoma.

Three cows and three bulls arrived in the meadow on a cold January day. They successfully joined the rest of the Osage’s herd in May, continuing the conservation work the zoo began over a century ago.

“To be able to send a group of bison to the Osage Nation, the same case that we initially reintroduced the bison is really special,” Thomas said. “The Osage Nation has shown a real commitment to not only having bison on their land, but also a lively herd of bison of conservation importance, and it is clear that they have been very committed to setting aside vast tracts of land, and it is really pleasing to see that the bison is special We are part of their programme.”

Osage Nation said the farm’s donated bison are not for slaughter. They are for conservation purposes and to help strengthen the genetic identity in the tribe’s herd.

George said the tribe is already planning to add another group of bison from the Bronx Zoo, possibly this fall.

“I told them we would take as many of them as possible from us. We love being partnered with them,” said George.

Dr. Thomas said he expects the cows brought in from the Bronx Zoo to give birth to calves in the coming weeks.

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