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

Abstract

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.

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Acknowledgements

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.

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Appendix 1. Individual-based population simulation model parameter values for Sturgeon River plains bison

Appendix 1. Individual-based population simulation model parameter values for Sturgeon River plains bison

• Initial population size: 205 (2013 estimate from Merkle et al. 2015—excluding calves). • Percent breeding-aged females reproducing per year: 69.6% (SD = 14.3%) based on the mean annual percentage of pregnant SRPB cows (n = 59) captured in 2005, 2007, 2012–2015 (mean of 9.3 per year)
  ◦ 101 adult females (≥3 years old)
  ◦ 59 adult males (≥3 years old)
  ◦ 23 juvenile females (1–2 years old)a
  ◦ 22 juvenile males (1–2 years old)a
• Stable age distributions were determined and used within each sex-age class • Adult and juvenile female mortality rate: 5.6% (SD = 1.3%) based on a mean (n = 7) of annual rates available from bison populations exposed to wolf predation (Bradley and Wilmshurst 2005b)
• Minimum age for producing offspring: three for females (Berger and Cunningham 1994, Wilson et al. 2002); six for males (Maher and Byers 1987, Wilson et al. 2002)
• Reproductive system: polygynous • Adult and juvenile male mortality rate: 7.6% (SD = 1.3%) based on a mean (n = 7) of annual rates available from bison populations exposed to wolf predation (Bradley and Wilmshurst 2005b)
• Maximum age for reproduction: 20 for females; 14 for males (Wilson et al. 2002)
• Annual male breeding success: 20% • Calf mortality rate: 49.2% (SD = 21.4%) based on a mean (n = 23) of annual rates available from bison populations exposed to wolf predation (VanCamp and Calef 1987, Larter et al. 2000)
• Maximum lifespan: 20 years (Meagher 1973)
• Maximum number of progeny/year: 1
• Sex ratio at birth: 50%
• Female harvest: one (age 1–2), two (age 2–3), and five (after age 3).
• Male harvest: one (age 1–2), two (age 2–3), three (age 3–4), three (age 4–5), two (age 5–6), one (after age 6)
  1. All SD values were approximated with methods for small sample sizes described in Lacy et al. (2015). Observed ranges were divided by expected ranges for a sample of n values from a normal distribution
  2. aJuvenile: cow values from Merkle et al. (2015) were used to estimate the number of juveniles in the population. A 50% sex ratio was assumed for juveniles because gender- specific data were not available for this age category
  3. bMortality rates from Bradley and Wilmshurst (2005) were adapted from Joly (2001) and Wilson et al. 1995 to include mortality due to wolf predation. Data from populations that had both tuberculosis and brucellosis were excluded

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Cherry, S.G., Merkle, J.A., Sigaud, M. et al. Managing Genetic Diversity and Extinction Risk for a Rare Plains Bison (Bison bison bison) Population. Environmental Management 64, 553–563 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00267-019-01206-2

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s00267-019-01206-2

Keywords

  • Genetic diversity
  • Conservation
  • Population thresholds
  • Social carrying capacity
  • Sustainable harvest