A few days before a crew from the Bronx Zoo arrived in Osage County to film a documentary on the Osage Nation Ranch, the six bison whose saga they were chronicling went off-script.
At some point around Cinco de Mayo, the three bulls and three cows upped and did what bison do: They broke out of their pen and joined the 200 buffalo on the other side.
“They’re true New Yorkers!” said Jason George, Harvest Land Business Development Specialist, as Patrick Thomas, the zoo’s curator and vice president of administration was being interviewed on camera.
Thomas paused and retorted: “We don’t know that it wasn’t your bison that just walked through the fence!”
Whoever broke on through to the other side, the Bronx half dozen embedded quickly in the ranch’s existing herd, much to the delight of Thomas and the other conservationists working with the Osage Nation to establish a permanent herd of bison on the Oklahoma land from which they were eradicated – an annihilation that paralleled that of the Osage people who revered them and relied upon them.
“We came from Kansas in 1872,” Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear told Natalie Cash, the executive producer of the documentary on the Bronx Zoo. “Our population had dropped from tens of thousands to 5,000, and between 1872 and 1890, we were reduced in population to about 1,500 people, and then in 1906 we finally got up to 2,229.
“When you lose nine out of 10 of your people in one generation, you’re going to lose a lot of your culture and a lot that’s been handed down for tens of thousands of years.”
Bison were central to that culture, and their numbers, too, were reduced to near-extinction, from tens of millions to, at rock bottom, fewer than 1,000 alive – and just 25 in the wild.
Standing Bear recalled that his great-grandfather was on the last Osage buffalo hunt in 1868, after which the majestic creatures were hard or impossible to find.
They left their marks behind, however; reminders of a time when vast herds thundered over the now-diminished prairie.
“The old folks would show me the places they would come,” Standing Bear said.
“There’s hills where you can see they’re all worn down to rock and I asked what they were and the old folks said that’s where the bison … would go over that ridge and wear it down.
You go further south and east – and even around here – you see wallows, depressions in the ground. They’re still here.”
Back from the brink
In the late 1800s, the Bronx Zoo – then called the New York Zoological Society – was the leader in rehabilitating bison populations and reeling the animals back from extinction. Its director, William Hornaday, was one of the founding members of the America Bison Society, which in 1907 sent 15 bison from the zoo to the Wichita Mountains of Oklahoma – the first and last shipment to the state until the six were trucked in from New York to the Osage ranch in late January.
About 12 years ago, the zoo decided it wanted to do more with its bison than breed them to be ambassadors to educate visitors about the species and their importance to not only Native Americans but to the ecosystem they once roamed freely.
The zoo wanted to play an active role in conserving bison and restoring them to their native habitat.
“Our goal was to develop a viable herd of pure bison from Yellowstone stock that could be used in restoration or reintroduction programs,” Thomas said. “At the time, animals were unavailable. So, we became partners with Colorado State University to try to get pure bison in the Bronx through embryo transfer, planting embryos from pure bison into surrogates that were living at the zoo.”
The technique is commonly used with commercial cattle, but it was pioneering work in bison.
“We actually did have the first bison produced by embryo transfer born at the Bronx Zoo 12 years ago, but the procedure was labor-intensive and we just weren’t getting the results we wanted quick enough,” Thomas said.
“And then we were given a group of eight bison by the Sioux and Assiniboine tribes of Fort Peck, Montana. Because of that, we were able to change the focus of our program to letting bison breed naturally, which is always going to work better than embryo transfer.
“We made a concerted effort to build the size of the herd and when we topped 30 animals we felt that we were ready to begin sending some out for a restoration program.”
Around that time, forces collided: The Osage Nation was trying to build its own herd on the 43,000-acre ranch it had bought from media mogul Ted Turner, and the Wildlife Conservation Service, which operates the Bronx Zoo, stepped in to make the introductions.
“We were put in contact with the Osage Nation and worked very closely with Jason George (of the tribe’s Department of Natural Resources),” Thomas said. “Initially, we chose a small group of three males and three females to make sure that zoo-born bison would acclimate to living in the wild, just to make sure they’ll be able to forage and do well.”
The bison were trucked to the ranch in January because that was a time when the calves were weaned and the cows had bred but weren’t so far along into pregnancy that they or their fetuses could be harmed by the 1,400-mile trip.
In late April, a study was published by Scientific Reports that dashes the hopes of those, including the Osage Nation, who hope for a genetically pure herd of bison: The five scientists who authored the study analyzed the entire genome of 25 bison, six of them “historic bison” dating back as far as 1886 whose DNA was pulled from the Smithsonian Institution, the Yellowstone Heritage and Research Center and other historical repositories. Nineteen samples were taken from national parks like Yellowstone and Wind Cave, as well as from isolated spots like Catalina Island off California, and other parks in North America.
In the past, genetic samples have led many to believe that bison from Yellowstone remained pure, but when the entire genome of historic and modern bison from there were sequenced, the scientists found that all had “introgression” from domestic cattle. Those from Yellowstone, Wind Cave, Canada’s Elk Island National Park and Catalina Island had the least amount of cattle crossover – but all had some.
“Theoretically, there could be genetically pure bison out there, but the chances are slim,” said Bob Hamilton, the director of the Nature Conservancy’s Tallgrass Prairie Preserve north of Pawhuska, which is home to 2,500 free-roaming bison on 40,000 acres.
In the late 1800s, before Hornaday and the Bronx Zoo started the good fight to save bison, five individuals caught and raised bison on private land. All but one tried to build better cattle by crossbreeding them with bison, thereby pooping in bisons’ genetic punch bowl in perpetuity. However, the study also suggests that bison and cattle might have philandered with each other without the help of man. Crossbreeding, however, did not produce the hybrid vigor that one might have hoped for; birthrates were often low, many of the offspring died young, and females were often barren.
Yellowstone, from which most of the Osage Nations’ bison originated – including those from the Bronx – are the most genetically pure, but even the purest whose genome was sequenced, Yellowstone_02, was only 99.76 percent pure. The bison whose sequenced genome had greatest introgression – 2.45 percent – was a Canadian wood bison from 1935 whose sample came out of the Smithsonian. There are two types of American bison: Plains and wood.
Hamilton said that while the news of such broad cattle introgression had conservationists talking up a storm, the amount of cattle crossover was unlikely to amount to much.
“That remains what we have out there,” he said. “They still act like bison and look like bison and as far as prairie restoration, they’re still bison.
“Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
More to come
The Osage Nation herd that the Bronx bison joined in early May is, like all such herds, in its spring birthing season. So far, about 25 fuzzy yellow bison calves have dropped, and they are staying close to their mammas – their centers of gravity.
As the filmmakers from the zoo interviewed Standing Bear, George and others, and as TV reporters did their stand-ups, the babies nuzzled their mothers and nursed, while the older bison ate, wallowed in the dust, occasionally mounted each other, and often engaged in somewhat lackadaisical head-butting and locking of horns.
The zoo vice president, Thomas, was so pleased with the outcome of the project with the Osage Nation that he is already hoping to send more bison from the Bronx to the Osage as early as this September.
“This is my first time seeing them on Oklahoma land,” Thomas said. “It’s an amazing experience. It’s great to see calves on the ground already, and a couple of females we sent will probably calve in the next few weeks.
“We view this movement as a win-win for everyone. For the Osage Nation, it’s an opportunity to have a viable population of bison grazing on ancestral land, and it’s obviously of great cultural and spiritual importance to them.
“For the Bronx Zoo, it’s an opportunity for bison to be more than ambassadors, to become beneficial and help the prairie ecosystem.
“There aren’t very many opportunities for a zoo to engage in a real restoration program.”
‘We are a small part of nature’
Standing Bear said he was thrilled to hear Thomas promise to continue the relationship with the tribe’s conservation program: “The future is really bright. Everyone is recharged and excited.”
The chief spoke of how the presence of bison is helping revitalize Osage culture and language.
“It was more than getting food,” the chief said. “Generations and generations and generations before that emphasized that we were a small part of nature and must have respect for everything. It makes me wonder, what did we have with the bison? But I can tell you my great-uncle Henry Lookout told me one time, probably in 1975 or earlier, that everything you want to know is right here. He was a holy man. So that encouraged me. “I guess we’ll find our way.”