Researchers have confirmed that the Henry Mountains of southern Utah are home to a rare, genetically pure bison herd. The team included Utah State University scientists who analyzed tissue samples from the bison.
Dr. Johan du Toit, professor of ecology and large mammal conservation at USU, took part in the research. He said that the herd is even more unique than other populations of bison that have not interbred with cattle.
“We’ve got a very, very special case in that the Henry Mountains bison is actually in fact the only population of bison in existence which is now both genetically pure and is free of the disease brucellosis and is free-ranging on public land co-mingling with cattle and is legally hunted,” du Toit said. “So, we have this very unique population which is one of a kind. It’s a large credit to the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, the Bureau of Land Management, and the local Henry Mountains Grazing Association. Over the years, they worked together to conserve this resource.”
Dr. Dustin Ranglack, now at Montana State University, is the lead author of the study and said that the herd could have an impact on future bison conservation.
“Now, we only have 500,000 bison but, of those, only 20,000 are what we would consider to be wild bison. Now we have a third herd of free-ranging bison that is disease-free and doesn’t show any introgression of cattle genes,” Ranglack said. “That actually makes the Henry Mountains bison, in a way, almost even more valuable than [the herd in] Yellowstone. Because of that, they can represent a really important source for potential reintroduction projects that are trying to restore bison to a large portion of their native range.”
The Henry Mountains herd was transferred from Yellowstone National Park in the 1940’s.