Working to preserve the wood bison in Canada

Nov 07, 2014

November 1st was Bison Day, and while not many Canadians have marked a day for celebrating bison on their calendar, it’s important to remember.

Wood bison are the largest land mammals in the North America, and are a significant keystone species in Northern Canada. Historically, due to uncontrolled hunting in the late 19th century the bison was extirpated from most of its range. Although the wood bison populations are recovering, their species is still listed as threatened in Canada, and endangered in the United States.

Due to the low numbers of wood bison, their future survival is jeopardized by habitat loss and fragmentation, loss of genetic diversity, and outbreaks of disease such as tuberculosis, brucellosis and anthrax. To alleviate this loss, the development of effective reproductive technologies to save valuable genetic material from wood bison is paramount.

At the Calgary Zoo, we’re passionate about preserving these important North American mammals. Calgary Zoo veterinarian Dr. Doug Whiteside has been working with Dr. Jacob Thundathil and his team from the University of Calgary to conduct research to maximize the genetic diversity and reproduction of threatened Wood Bison. They are developing and refining methods to preserve genetic material from male and female bison, and to produce in-vitro embryos. These techniques may hold the future for preserving wood bison populations in Canada.

The doctors are also part of the Bison Reproductive Research Group, which includes other scientists from the University of Saskatchewan, the Toronto Zoo,  Parks Canada, the Northwest Territories, and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Together their research has culminated in the Toronto Zoo producing wood bison calves through artificial insemination for the past 4 years. 

Efforts to preserve and enhance the population of genetically diverse and disease-free wood bison herds in North America is vital, as it will not only contribute to the aesthetic, cultural, economic, and social well-being of local communities, but will lessen the risk of disease to the existing commercial bison and cattle industries.

You can visit the zoo's wood bison herd in our Canadian Wilds section.