America’s last wild buffalo are in danger, says scientist

A new study suggests that buffalo in Yellowstone National Park could be weakened by a genetic abnormality in the herd.

Buffalo in the United States used to roam in herds of millions. Today, America’s total number of buffalo only number in the thousands, and Thomas Pringle says that number could soon dive.

Pringle is a biochemist on the genomic team for the University of California at Santa Cruz. His new paper, which was released online this week by the journal Nature, suggests that America’s last wild herd of pure-bred buffalo – buffalo without cattle genes – is already genetically weak, and that a planned slaughter of dozens of buffalo in Yellowstone National Park could leave the herd even weaker.

The buffalo who’ve been designated for slaughter in 2011 by the National Parks Service have been exposed to an infectious disease called brucellosis. Reuters’ Laura Zuckerman explains the situation well:

[Pringle] found that most Yellowstone bison whose DNA were tested carried a genetic mutation that affects cellular metabolism and makes bison lethargic, rendering them less capable of foraging in deep snow, fending off predators and competing for mates.

Pringle, whose work on other genomes has appeared in professional journals such as Science and Nature, said his bison research demonstrates that culling of the wild herd based on brucellosis, rather on the health of their genes, may push the species over the edge into a form of extinction.

The issue is controversial, because brucellosis is a bacterial infection that can cause livestock cows to miscarry. Local ranchers are concerned for their own livelihoods, and the welfare of their animals.

Nevertheless, Pringle is calling foul on the U.S. government for failing to consider the full ramifications of the planned Yellowstone slaughter. The National Parks Service (NPS) has asserted it would be acting within its rights, even if it killed as many as 1,600 buffalo among its herd of about 3,700. (It’s worth mentioning that, so far, only 76 have been marked for slaughter.)

The fate of the Yellowstone buffalo herd will likely be decided by the U.S. courts, as lawsuits and countersuits have been filed by both the NPS, and environmental organizations.

This is in relation to a new study by Thomas Pringle of UC-Santa Cruz, which suggests that buffalo in Yellowstone National Park are already genetically weak, and could grow weaker.

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