By Adam Russel
Texas A&M [email protected]
Texas A&M AgriLife Research, including student projects, continues to advance science related to Texas bison management for conservation and production.
Perry Barboza, Ph.D., AgriLife Research Professor in the Departments of Ecology and Conservation Biology and Rangeland, Wildlife and Fisheries Management, said research on bison sustainability in the Texas for Production and Preservation focuses on solving fundamental problems and establishing fundamental knowledge. .
Barboza oversaw student research on bison, a species that once ranged the length of the Great Plains within both departments of the Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
Bison could become an increasingly important animal option for Texas ranchers, but for now they represent a niche opportunity, he said. The meat is expensive — about $9 a pound for ground bison — but production is limited by issues ranging from pests and disease to temperament.
Most bison are marketed as yearlings between 300 and 500 pounds, Barboza said. This makes the body condition of each animal and maximizing daily weight gain vitally important to producers.
Much of the early projects conducted by undergraduate and graduate students are designed to answer basic questions related to the management of bison under production conditions.
“It is possible to use bison more than cattle if companies want to use them at lower stocking rates and increase pasture diversity,” he said. “Bison are much more drought tolerant, so a farm can manage separate cattle and bison herds to balance the rancher’s economic and ecological goals.”
Pest-Driven Bison Research The widespread adoption of bison as a livestock production option relies on researchers like Barboza identifying science-based methodologies to make them a sustainable addition to Texas ranching operations. Internal and external pest problems are a major problem, especially in humid regions.
“There are certain realities that we need to address from a conservation and production perspective when it comes to the sustainability of bison in Texas,” he said. “We’re still going through the basics, but each step we take helps us better understand the challenges and develop strategies or set boundaries.”
Blood-sucking insects like flies can directly harm bison, but can also act as vectors for pathogens, he said. Researchers don’t yet know exactly what species of flies are attracted to bison in Texas, meaning there’s no reliable way to treat them.
A bison at Lucky B Bison Ranch. Blood-sucking flies and other parasites are a major obstacle for unadapted bison in the southern United States. Parasite infestations can impact body condition scores, introduce disease and stress animals. (Texas A&M AgriLife photo by Sam Craft) Bison are also difficult to treat with topical pesticides, he said. They are generally harder to handle and manage, and their temperament adds another challenge to growers.
A few Barboza students have engaged with local ranches with bison to study their body condition scores, the negative impacts of blood-sucking flies, and whether bat colonies could be an effective way to control fly populations.
Bridgett Benedict, a graduate student in the Department of Ecology and Conservation Biology, has studied the impacts of flies on northern ungulates, including moose and bison. His work ‘Adverse effects of Diptera flys on Northern ungulates: Rangifer, Alces and Bison’, published in Mammal Review, investigated the cumulative damage of bites and vector-borne diseases in relation to body condition and pest exposure.
Benedict’s work helped lay the groundwork for understanding how flies could impact production, including body condition and daily weight gains, Barboza said.
Another study conducted by an undergraduate student in the department, Wyatt Stinebaugh, emerged from Benedict’s research. He focused on whether bats might share a commensal relationship with bison, which could make colonies of introduced bats a potential biological method for controlling fly populations.
Stinebaugh used acoustic monitoring equipment at seven sites – two with bison present, one site with cattle and four control sites with no bovids present – between March and November 2021. Insects were also trapped at the sites from March to May 2021.
The study did not find a commensal link between bats and bison or conclude that bats would be an effective method of control, but bat colonies near sites with bison and cattle could help control swarming events.
Temperatures also play a role in the negative impact pests inflict on bison, Barboza said. Environmental and weather related insect activity in Texas makes this a problem almost year round. “Some flies open the wound, some keep it open, and some live on the animal and rarely let go,” Barboza said. “We seek to get animals to an ideal point for their body condition and provide the solutions to keep them there, with a combination of diet, insect control and parasite treatment.”
Adaptations to southern climates are key Much of the research was conducted in cooperation with the Texas Bison Association and the National Bison Association and other Texas A&M laboratories and researchers, including the Department of Entomology and the Laboratory of Parasitology from the School of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.
Barboza said the work will be critical to reestablishing bison herds in Texas. Most bison come from northern states like the Dakotas and are acclimatized there to colder climates, pests, and disease.
The loss of southern-adapted bison phenotypes is an obstacle that researchers will continue to overcome. The Great Plains were once home to 30 to 50 million bison, including those better adapted to southern climates and the pests that thrive there.
Research and breeding programs could help bison establish new adaptations because bison are selected for attributes best suited to Texas and production, including temperament and parasites, he said.
“Bison is still a niche market, so it’s hard for smaller producers to find consistent value, reliability and performance under normal conditions,” Barboza said. “Bison can tolerate a lot if we can overcome diet, insect and parasite issues.”