THEODORE ROOSEVELT NATIONAL PARK NORTH UNIT -- Hushed words were said systematically between the 20-or-so people during the bison roundup in the North Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park on Tuesday morning.
Backcountry Ranger John Heiser said it’s a much different scene now during the cull than the first one at TRNP in 1962.
“The only thing that hasn’t changed is the bison,” he said. “We had a bunch of local cowboys, including me, who would saddle up horses and we would ride from one end to the other at full speed chasing bison. It was a lot of fun.”
Eileen Andes, TRNP’s chief of interpretation, said people speak quietly to keep the bison as calm and relaxed as possible to minimize injuries or stress to the animals.
Everyone on scene knows their responsibility and they work to accomplish the goal of getting information on each animal, getting them tagged and sorted.
Not only are there people working to navigate the bison through the chutes, but biologist Bill Whitworth, veterinarian Seth Nienhueser and representatives from the Inter Tribal Buffalo Council are also on scene.
Whitworth took genetic testing and blood samples of each animal to insure they were clear for brucellosis, a bison bacterial disease in bison which can cause loss of fetuses. Andes said North Dakota bison are disease free.
Those checking the animals determined their age, by the teeth, height and weight while they were in the hydraulic chute, and Nienhueser, who practices in Watford City, takes samples and cares to any wounds that need attention.
“Everybody has got a specific jobs to do,” she said.
A large chunk of the 100 bison that will be removed are going to Native American tribes in South Dakota, Oklahoma and Washington.
There will be bison going to the Minnesota Zoo and the National Buffalo Museum in Jamestown, as well.
Kristine Reed, wildlife biologist with the ITBC said tribes request bison during roundups and the number requested always far surpasses the amount of available bison.
The cull in TRNP will result in about 100 yearlings and two-year-old bison to be donated.
Bison are a large part of Native American ancestry and Reed said it’s important for tribes to have herds on their land and to bring new bison into existing herds.
“Most tribes reintroduced bison for two reasons -- one, the cultural significance of bison and bringing them back to the culture, and two, the ecological restoration of lands,” she said. “When you restore bison, you can restore many other species that are really significant with them.”
The American bison was commemorated earlier this year as the new national mammal, which cemented its place in the nation’s history -- a long cry from when bison were once almost hunted to extinction.
Genetic diversity from that period of low bison population is still a concern for biologists like Reed.
“You don’t have a natural mixing of genetics like you would in a wild population,” she said. “So it has to be manipulated through management so you don’t get inbreeding or a further bottleneck of the genetics.”
The herd in the North Unit originated from 10 bulls and 10 cows in 1962 that were relocated from the South Unit’s herd of bison. Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge in Nebraska relocated 29 of their bison to the South Unit in 1956.
Reed said of the 60 million bison that once roamed North America in the late 1800s and early 1900s, only a handful of the animals’ descendants remain. Bison are the closest relatives of domestic cattle and TRNP bison share genetics with their close relatives.
Like cattle, bison graze for their food in the 24,000-acre North Unit, so controlling the population means there is enough food for bison and other animals in the park.
Bison roundups typically happen every three to five years in both the North Unit and South Unit. The last cull in the North Unit was in 2010.
Whitworth said his hope is to have them much more frequently in the future to help keep a better eye on management and testing.
“What that will allow us to do will be able to take out younger animals and we won’t have to have such a large cull and I think that is an advantage for a number of reasons,” he said, including up-to-date information and research. “It’s important to get the funding and right now it looks like we will have the funding to do so.”