Environmental Management

, Volume 64, Issue 5, pp 553–563 | Cite as

Managing Genetic Diversity and Extinction Risk for a Rare Plains Bison (Bison bison bison) Population

  • Seth G. CherryEmail author
  • Jerod A. Merkle
  • Marie Sigaud
  • Daniel Fortin
  • Greg A. Wilson


Unfenced plains bison are rare and only occur in a small number of locations throughout Canada and the United States. We examined management guidelines for maintenance of genetic health and population persistence for a small and isolated population of plains bison that occupy the interface between a protected national park and private agricultural lands. To address genetic health concerns, we measured genetic diversity relative to other populations and assessed the potential effects of genetic augmentation. We then used individual-based population viability analyses (PVA) to determine the minimum abundance likely to prevent genetic diversity declines. We assessed this minimum relative to a proposed maximum social carrying capacity related to bison use of human agricultural lands. We also used the PVA to assess the probability of population persistence given the limiting factors of predation, hunting, and disease. Our results indicate that genetic augmentation will likely be required to achieve genetic diversity similar to that of other plains bison populations. We also found that a minimum population of 420 bison yields low probability of additional genetic loss while staying within society-based maxima. Population estimates based on aerial surveys indicated that the population has been below this minimum since 2007. Our PVA simulations indicate that current hunting practices will result in undesirable levels of population extinction risk and further declines in genetic variability. Our study demonstrates that PVA can be used to evaluate potential management scenarios as they relate to long-term genetic conservation and population persistence for rare species.


Genetic diversity Conservation Population thresholds Social carrying capacity Sustainable harvest 



Funding for this project was provided by the Parks Canada Agency Conservation and Restoration Program and Université Laval. Assistance with field work was provided by Joanne Watson and Becky Gillespie. In-kind contributions to field work were provided by the Sturgeon River Plains Bison Stewards. Todd Shury conducted bison captures. We thank anonymous reviewers that substantially improved the quality of our paper.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.


  1. Allendorf FW, Ryman N (2002) The role of genetics in population viability analysis. In: Beissinger SR, McCullough DC (eds) Population Viability Analysis. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, p 50–85Google Scholar
  2. Bach LA, Pedersen RBF, Hayward M, Stagegaard J, Loeschcke V, Pertoldi C (2010) Assessing re-introductions of the African Wild dog (Lycaon pictus) in the Limpopo Valley Conservancy, South Africa, using the stochastic simulation program VORTEX. J Nat Conserv 18:237–246Google Scholar
  3. Brook BW, O’Grady JJ, Chapman AP, Burgman MA, Akcakaya HR, Frankham R (2000) Predictive accuracy of population viability analysis in conservation biology. Nature 404:385–387Google Scholar
  4. Bradley M, Wilmshurst J (2005) The rise and fall of bison populations in Wood Buffalo National Park: 1971 to 2003. Can J Zool 83:1195–1205Google Scholar
  5. Berger J, Cunningham C (1994) Bison: mating and conservation in small populations. Columbia University Press, New York, NYGoogle Scholar
  6. Carroll C, Fredrickson RJ, Lacy RC (2013) Developing metapopulation connectivity criteria from genetic and habitat data to recover the endangered Mexican wolf. Conserv Biol 28:76–86Google Scholar
  7. Chadès I, Curtis JMR, Martin TG (2012) Setting realistic recover targets for two interacting endangered species, sea otter and northern abalone. Conserv Biol 26:1016–1025Google Scholar
  8. Chen YH, Opp SB, Berlocher SH, Roderick GK (2006) Are bottlenecks associated with colonization? Genetic diversity and diapauses variation of native and introduced Rhagoletis complete populations. Oecologia 149:656–667Google Scholar
  9. Chilvers BL (2012) Population viability analysis of New Zealand sea lions, Auckland Islands, New Zealand’s sub-antarctics: assessing relative impacts and uncertainty. Polar Biol 35:1607–1615Google Scholar
  10. COSEWIC (2013) COSEWIC assessment and status report on the Plains Bison Bison bison bison and the Wood Bison Bison bison athabascae in Canada. Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada, Ottawa, p xv+109Google Scholar
  11. Falcucci A, Ciucci P, Maiorano L, Gentile L, Boitani L (2009) Assessing habitat quality for conservation using an integrated occurrence-mortality model. J Appl Ecol 46:600–609Google Scholar
  12. Festa-Bianchet M, Coulson T, Gaillard JM, Hogg JT, Pelletier F (2006) Stochastic predation events and population persistence in bighorn sheep. Proc R Soc B 273:1537–1543Google Scholar
  13. Fortin D, Fryxell JM, O’Brodovich L, Frandsen D (2003) Foraging ecology of bison at the landscape and plant community levels: the applicability of energy maximization principles. Oecologia 134:219–227Google Scholar
  14. Fortin D, Merkle JA, Sigaud M, Cherry SG, Plante S, Drolet A, Labrecque M (2015) Temporal dynamics in the foraging decisions of large herbivores. Anim Prod Sci 55:376–383Google Scholar
  15. Frank LG, Woodroffe R (2001) Behaviour of carnivores in exploited and controlled populations. In: Gittleman J, Funk S, Macdonald DW, Wayne R (Eds.) Carnivore Conservation. Conservation Biology 5. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, MA, p 419–442Google Scholar
  16. Frankham R, Ballou JD, Broscoe DA (2002) Introduction to Conservation Genetics. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UKGoogle Scholar
  17. Freese CH, Aune KE, Boyd DP, Derr JN, Forrest SC, Gates CC, Gogan PJP, Grassel SM, Halbert ND, Kunkel K et al. (2007) Second chance for the plains bison. Biol Cons 136:175–184Google Scholar
  18. Halbert ND, Grant WE, Derr JN (2005) Genetic and demographic consequences of importing animals into a small population: a simulation model of the Texas State Bison Herd (USA). Ecol Model 181:263–276Google Scholar
  19. Harvey L, Fortin D (2013) Spatial heterogeneity in the strength of plant-herbivore interactions under predation risk: the tale of bison foraging in wolf country. PLoS ONE 8:e73324Google Scholar
  20. Hebblewhite M, White C, Musiani M (2010) Revisiting extinction in national parks: mountain caribou in Banff. Conserv Biol 24:341–3464Google Scholar
  21. Hedrick PW (2009) Conservation genetics and North American bison (Bison bison). J Hered 100:411–420Google Scholar
  22. Hoban S, Bertorelle G, Gaggiotti OE (2012) Computer simulations: tools for population and evolutionary genetics. Nat Rev Genet 13:110–122Google Scholar
  23. Hofman-Kaminska E, Kowalczyk R (2012) Farm crops depredation by European Bison (Bison bonasus) in the vicinity of forest habitats in northeastern Poland. Environ Manag 50:530–541Google Scholar
  24. Joly DO (2001) Brucellosis and tuberculosis as factors limiting population growth of northern bison. Ph.D. thesis. University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, SKGoogle Scholar
  25. Kimura M, Crow JF (1964) The number of alleles that can be maintained in a finite population. Genetics 49:725–738Google Scholar
  26. Keller LF, Waller DM (2002) Inbreeding effects in wild populations. Trends Ecol Evol 17:230–241Google Scholar
  27. Lacy RC, Pollak JP (2015) Vortex: A Stochastic Simulation of the Extinction Process. Version 10.1. Chicago Zoological Society, Brookfield, Illinois, USAGoogle Scholar
  28. Lacy RC, Miller PS, Traylor-Holzer K (2015) Vortex10 user’s manual. 15 April 2015 update. IUCN SSC Conservation Breeding Specialist Group, and Chicago ZoologicalSociety, Apple Valley, Minnesota, USAGoogle Scholar
  29. Lambrinos JG (2004) How interactions between ecology and evolution influence contemporary invasion dynamics. Ecology 85:2061–2070Google Scholar
  30. Larter NC, Sinclair ARE, Ellsworth T, Nishi J, Gates CC (2000) Dynamics of reintroduction in an indigenous large ungulate: the wood bison of northern Canada. Anim Conserv 4:299–309Google Scholar
  31. Lessard C, Danielson J, Rajapaksha K, Adams GP, McCorkell R (2009) Banking North American buffalo semen. Theriogenology 71:1112–1119Google Scholar
  32. Louis EJ, Dempster ER (1987) An exact test for Hardy–Weinberg and multiple alleles. Biometrics 43:805–811Google Scholar
  33. Martin J, Runge MC, Nichols JD, Lubow BC, Kendall WL (2009) Structured decision making as a conceptual framework to identify thresholds for conservation and management. Ecol Appl 19:1079–1090Google Scholar
  34. Merkle JA, Cherry SG, Fortin D (2015) Bison distribution under conflicting foraging strategies: site fidelity vs. energy maximization. Ecology 96:1793–1801Google Scholar
  35. Maher CR, Byers JA (1987) Age-related changes in reproductive effort of male bison. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 21:91–96Google Scholar
  36. Meagher M (1973) The bison of Yellowstone National Park. National Park Service Scientific Monograph Series 1, Washington, DC, USAGoogle Scholar
  37. Nei M (1987) Molecular Evolutionary Genetics. Columbia University Press, New York, NYGoogle Scholar
  38. Nei M, Maruyama T, Chakraborty R (1975) The bottleneck effect and genetic variability in populations. Evolution 29:1–10Google Scholar
  39. Packer C, Loveridge A, Canney S, Caro T, Garnett ST, Pfeifer M, Zander KK, Swanson A, MacNulty D, Balme G et al. (2013) Large carnivore conservation: dollars and fence. Ecol Lett 16:635–641Google Scholar
  40. Paetkau D, Waits LP, Clarkson PL, Craighead L, Vyse E, Ward R, Strobeck C (1998) Variation in genetic diversity across the range of North American brown bears. Conserv Biol 12:418–429Google Scholar
  41. Petit RJ, El Mousadik A, Pons O (1998) Identifying populations for conservation on the basis of genetic markers. Conserv Biol 12:844–855Google Scholar
  42. Ranglack DH, Du Toit JT (2015) Wild bison as ecological indicators of the effectiveness of management practices to increase forage quality on open rangeland. Ecol Indic 56:145–151Google Scholar
  43. Ranglack DH, Du Toit JT (2016) Bison with benefits: towards integrating wildlife and ranching sectors on a public rangeland in the western USA. Oryx 50:549–554Google Scholar
  44. Raymond M, Rousset F (1995) An exact test for population differentiation. Evolution 49:1280–1283Google Scholar
  45. Reed JM, Mills LS, Dunning JB, Menges ES, McKelvey KS, Frye R, Beissinger SR, Anstett MC, Miller P (2002) Emerging issues in population viability analysis. Conserv Biol 16:7–19Google Scholar
  46. Salb A, Stephen C, Ribble C, Elkin B (2014) Descriptive epidemiology of detected anthrax outbreaks in wild wood bison (bison bison athabascae) in northern Canada, 1962–2008. J Wildl Dis 50:459–468Google Scholar
  47. Sanderson EW, Redford KH, Weber B, Aune K, Baldes D, Berger J, Carter D, Curtin C, Derr J, Dobrott S et al. (2008) The ecological future of the North American bison: conceiving long-term, large-scale conservation of wildlife. Conserv Biol 22:252–266Google Scholar
  48. Shaffer ML (1981) Minimum population sizes for species conservation. BioScience 31:131–134Google Scholar
  49. Shaw JH (1995) How many bison originally populated western rangelands? Rangelands 17:148–150Google Scholar
  50. Shury TK, Frandsen D, O’Brodovich L (2009) Anthrax in free-ranging bison in the Prince Albert National Park area of Saskatchewan in 2008. Can Vet J 50:152–154Google Scholar
  51. Sigaud M, Merkle JA, Cherry SG, Fryxell JM, Berdahl A, Fortin D (2017) Collective decision-making promotes fitness loss in a fusion-fission society. Ecol Lett 20:33–40Google Scholar
  52. Soulé M, Gilpin M, Conway W, Foose T (1986) The millenium ark: how long a voyage, how many staterooms, how many passengers? Zoo Biol 5:101–113Google Scholar
  53. Sturgeon River Plains Bison Management Plan. 2013. Produced by Sturgeon River Plains Bison Management Planning Coordinating Committee.
  54. Thomas CD (1990) What do real population dynamics tell us about minimum viable population sizes? Conserv Biol 4:324–327Google Scholar
  55. Urton EJM, Hobson KA (2005) Intrapopulation variation in gray wolf isotope (δ15N and δ13C) profiles: implications for the ecology of individuals. Oecologia 145:317–326Google Scholar
  56. Valls-Fox H, Chamaille-Jammes S, de Garine-Wichatitsky M et al. (2018) Water and cattle shape habitat selection by wild herbivores at the edge of a protected area. Anim Conserv 21:365–375Google Scholar
  57. VanCamp J, Calef GW (1987) Population dynamics of bison. In: Reynolds HW, Hawley AWL (eds.), Bison ecology in relation to agricultural development in the Slave River Lowlands, NWT. Canadian Wildlife Service Occasional, Paper No 63, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, T6B 2X3 pp. 21–24Google Scholar
  58. Vonholdt BM, Stahler DR, Smith DW, Earl DA, Pollinger JP, Wayne RK (2008) The genealogy and genetic variability of reintroduced Yellowstone grey wolves. Mol Ecol 17:252–274Google Scholar
  59. Wilson GA, Strobeck C (1999) Genetic variation within and relatedness among wood and plains bison populations. Genome 42:483–496Google Scholar
  60. Woodroffe R, Ginsberg JR (1998) Edge effects and the extinction of populations inside protected areas. Science 280:2126–2128Google Scholar
  61. Wilson E, Mercer G, Morgan J (1995) Bison movement and distribution study final report. Technical Report TR 93–06 WBGoogle Scholar
  62. Wilson GA, Olson W, Strobeck C (2002) Reproductive success in wood bison (Bison bison athabascae) established using molecular techniques. Can J Zool 80:1537–1548Google Scholar
  63. Zachos FE, Hajji GM, Hmwe SS, Hartl GB, Lorenzini R, Mattioli S (2009) Population viability analysis and genetic diversity of the endangered red deer Cervus elaphus population from Mesola, Italy. Wildl Biol 15:175–186Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Crown 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Parks Canada AgencyWaskesiuCanada
  2. 2.Département de Biologie and Centre d’Étude de la ForêtUniversité LavalQuébecCanada
  3. 3.Parks Canada AgencyFort SaskatchewanCanada
  4. 4.Parks Canada AgencyRadium Hot SpringsCanada
  5. 5.Department of Zoology and PhysiologyUniversity of WyomingLaramieUSA

Personalised recommendations