Saturday, February 24, 2024

Inconvenient Genetic Truth about Yellowstone Bison

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The following letter is written by Sierra Dawn Stoneberg Holt, a 5th generation Montana rancher from Hinsdale.  She has a Masters Degree in Biology and a PHD in Botany.

My name is Sierra Dawn (Mountain Sunrise).  I live on the prairies where my great grandparents and great great grandmother settled in 1918.  This landscape has made me, and I want to know everything my mind can hold about its plants and creatures.  I spent 13 years in college, learning to read and understand DNA sequences, learning what they could tell us and also what they could not.

Fort Peck and Fort Belknap are being asked to hold Yellowstone bison.  The National Fish and Wildlife Service, the US Department of the Interior, and the American Prairie Foundation have all refused to have any of these bison for fear of contaminating their herds.  The Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks (FWP) has stated repeatedly in their Environmental Assessment (EA) and Record of Decision (ROD), that these bison will not belong to the tribes but will be “held” by the tribes for five years.  The ROD states that the tribes may not do anything with these bison without authorization from FWP, which will be granted for a period of five years.  I ask myself, why is it so important that these bison not belong to the tribes when the tribes are being asked to pay all the bills, do all the work, and assume all the risks?  A bison does not care if it is owned by the Fort Peck Tribes or the FWP.  The FWP Commissioners’ meeting concluded with extensive discussion of provisions for the FWP to take all the bison back away from the tribes at some future date.  It seems to me that the purpose of this translocation is not to protect Yellowstone Park genetics or improve the situation of the tribes.  It is a political ploy to introduce wild bison into Eastern Montana and subsequently to turn this area into the gigantic park that was proposed two years ago.  I love this land, and I want to stay here.  Therefore, I ask you to carefully consider some of the things that the government has not told you before you enter into an agreement with them.

Mitochondria:  Mitochondria are the powerhouses of the cell, the source of the energy we use to move and breathe and exist.  Most of their proteins are made for them by the cell, using the cell’s DNA.  However, they still have a tiny fragment of the DNA that was their own when they were free-living bacteria.  Mitochondrial DNA codes for a few (important) mitochondrial proteins.  Mitochondria always come from the mother.  A bison cow’s mitochondrial DNA will be inherited by all her calves, and the calves of all her daughters, and the calves of all their daughters, and so on forever. 

Most Yellowstone bison have a mitochondrial disease.  The disease impairs the animals’ ability to escape predators, tolerate winter cold, forage in snow, and secure mates1.  Simply put, they are genetically less fit for survival in range conditions. 

Has anyone mentioned the existence of this disease to the tribes?  At the meeting in Glasgow, I pointed out that over half of Yellowstone bison have mitochondrial disease.  I asked if any testing had been done to assure the tribes that they would be holding healthy bison.  The answer was, “No.”

Diversity:  Yellowstone Park bison are genetically impoverished.  In 1907, the Yellowstone herd consisted of 44 animals, 21 of which were “…bison from semi-domesticated herds in Montana and Texas”2.  Diversity is the cornerstone of ecology, and Yellowstone Park bison have none. 

If these bison were crossed with the tribes’ own herds, both might benefit.  But the FWP EA insists that these bison will be segregated and that the Fort Belknap herd will be completely destroyed over the course of three years.  The Fort Belknap bison have over 37 years of irreplaceable Snake Butte herd knowledge and genetic fitness.  Every place is different, so genetic fitness applies to one specific unique place.  It takes many generations before a herd is made up of animals that best fit that special place.  Thirty-seven years of Snake Butte fitness will be sacrificed for a handful of Yellowstone-fit animals inbred from just 44 original bison.  There were more than 44 bison on the Plains in 1880, and they all have a right to survive into the next century, not just the 44 that some New Yorkers have decided are fashionable.  This is an especially bitter pill since the FWP has only promised these bison to the tribes for five years.

Inbreeding:  Mitochondrial DNA cannot be inbred.  There is only one copy, and it is inherited whole from the cow.  That is not the case for the vast majority of genes, which are on the cell’s own chromosomes.  In the case of these genes, the calf is the offspring of both the bull and the cow, so it matters whether or not they are brother and sister.

In Yellowstone Park, for the past 104 years, the sons and daughters of 44 bison have interbred with their offspring, parents, sisters, brothers, and cousins.  For all recessive disease genes from each parent (every individual has a lot of these), offspring of a sister and brother are 12.5{962fe9be9a8a5c386944bfa41f48d98b010325707b70b1fa6182bcabd27c5d7f} likely to have the disease and 37.5{962fe9be9a8a5c386944bfa41f48d98b010325707b70b1fa6182bcabd27c5d7f} likely to carry it.  If their sons and daughters also interbreed, the chances of having the disease rise to over 12.8{962fe9be9a8a5c386944bfa41f48d98b010325707b70b1fa6182bcabd27c5d7f} and the chances of carrying it into the next generation rise to over 39.8{962fe9be9a8a5c386944bfa41f48d98b010325707b70b1fa6182bcabd27c5d7f}.  And so on.  Incest leads to slow, inevitable degeneration.  People demanding that Yellowstone bison be kept away from other bison to preserve their “purity” are no friends of the bison.  They are insisting on the genetic destruction of the Yellowstone herd for political ends. 

“Purity”:  The FWP EA states, “Yellowstone bison are valued for their lack of genetic introgression from domestic cattle and are considered a cornerstone of bison conservation.”  This statement is an insult to bison and a threat to their very survival.  If the world has no bison in 2111, this misconception will probably be the reason why.

First, if today’s bison have genes that bison did not have 200 years ago, that is not a bad thing.  All living species adapt and change genetically over time.  If bison were something to be “conserved” with only the genes they had 200 years ago, they would not be a living species, not part of the ecosystem.  They would a be dead museum exhibit.   

Second, if today’s bison have some genes that were captured from today’s cattle, that is not a bad thing.  Living things capture unrelated DNA all the time.  For one example, mitochondrial DNA is bacterial DNA that was captured by the first ancestors of complex life.  All plants and animals have captured bacterial DNA.  For another example, a gene that cattle and bison share (with water buffalo, goats, and sheep) is a gene that their common ancestor acquired 50 million years ago from a snake3.  Does the FWP believe all ruminants (deer, antelope, elk) are impure?  They all share captured snake DNA. 

Third, artificial selection on the basis of meaningless DNA sequence is a bad thing.  The beauty of natural selection is that it doesn’t require humans and an automatic sequencer to run it.  To determine which bison are fit, you do not do a full genetic scan and then kill all the bison with DNA sequences that you don’t like.  To determine a fit bison, you subject it to your environment and conditions (as the people at Fort Belknap have done for over 37 years).  If it thrives, it is a fit bison.  If it has strong, healthy, intelligent offspring, it is a good bison.  It does not need the blessing of some geneticist from Connecticut. 

Brucellosis:  The media always says that Brucellosis causes “some animals to abort”.  No one mentions that Brucellosis is most dangerous to humans.  No one mentions that Brucellosis was the first disease weaponized by the United States for biological warfare.  No one mentions that Brucellosis can kill a healthy adult in 5-21 days or leave survivors with delirium, crippling arthritis, or psychiatric conditions4,5.  No one mentions that in 1895 Brucellosis killed up to 34{962fe9be9a8a5c386944bfa41f48d98b010325707b70b1fa6182bcabd27c5d7f} of the infants on the island of Malta5.  Has anyone ever seen fit to warn the people of Fort Peck and Fort Belknap that Brucellosis is deadly to people?   

Quarantine:  Why can’t the FWP give a straight answer about whether these Yellowstone bison are still under quarantine or not?  Because Brucellosis is such a danger to humans, it is under strict federal quarantine rules and suspected carriers must be kept separate from healthy animals to protect human health.

The EA states in some places (p.10) that the bison are legally disease-free (and therefore quarantine-free), elsewhere (p. 36) that they will be quarantined (that Fort Belknap will commit to 24-hour monitoring of a quarantine facility), and elsewhere (p. 35 & 38) that the quarantine will be not be effective (that the tribes will have wildlife-friendly fences that will permit healthy, susceptible wildlife access to the potentially diseased bison). 

If the animals are not disease-free, then why doesn’t the FWP take responsibility for them until they are and turn healthy bison over to the tribes?  If the animals are legally disease-free, then why is the FWP trying to dictate to the tribes and enforce a quarantine that they admit will not be effective?

Ownership:  Why does the FWP EA say that Fort Peck and Fort Belknap are, “potential interim sites where bison can be held until completion of a statewide conservation strategy [not later than the end of 2015]”?  The FWP cannot make up their minds if these are healthy bison or bison that will put the people and wildlife on the reservation in danger.  They are asking the tribes for tremendous effort and expense.  “There would be no direct costs to FWP under this option… The Tribes would incur all costs related to the holding of the study bison.” (EA p. 37)  And in return for the cost, effort, and risk that they are asking the tribes to bear, they will only commit to permitting the tribes to “hold” their bison until 2015?  The fine print of the EA and ROD state that the FWP can demand any or all of the bison and their offspring back without giving the tribes one cent for their troubles… because they never gave the tribes the bison in the first place.  They merely allowed the tribes to care for FWP bison.  Is that at all fair?

Why are the tribes expected to carry all the danger and expense, but are not allowed ownership of the animals?  What is it about Fort Peck and Fort Belknap owning bison that is such a threat to the FWP?  Note that Fort Belknap has been strongly encouraged to kill all the bison they own and replace them with these bison on loan from the FWP.

At the Glasgow meeting, many people stressed that they do not object to the people of Fort Peck and Fort Belknap owning bison.  They object to Fort Peck and Fort Belknap not owning bison.  They object to those bison being on loan to the tribes from the FWP, the National Park Service, the public, the National Fish and Wildlife Service, or the World Wildlife Fund.  One tribal representative said at Glasgow, “Give us a chance.  Let us try to work together.”  Believe me.  Your neighbors would much rather give you a chance than give the FWP (and all their federal and international allies) a chance.    

I would like the FWP memorandum of understanding to state that all these bison and their offspring will be the property of the tribe either immediately or within five years.  If they are tribal property, neighboring landowners will be protected by domestic livestock laws, which is what they ask.  If they are tribal property, the FWP will not be able to take any of the bison back unless the tribe agrees and the FWP pays a fair price.  If they are tribal property, the tribe will have the right to manage the animals as wild as they choose (so long as neighbors are respected), and there will be no question of the FWP asking for ear tagging and freeze branding and autopsies, and insisting that the tribes need a permit from them to do anything with the bison.  The tribes will be free to recapture escaped bison without having to first apply for a permit from the FWP.

If the FWP will not give these assurances to the tribes, it is important to remember that the Yellowstone “purity” argument is a political play for money and power.  The Fort Belknap herd is better than the Yellowstone herd.  There are plenty of people with very good bison that will happily sell them with a bill-of-sale and never try to tell the tribes what they can and can’t do.

1Online NaturePrecedings article by Thomas Pringle, “Widespread Mitochondrial Disease in North American Bison”

2Montana Farm Bureau Federation Bison Management Analysis report prepared in cooperation with Kara Ricketts Communication

3Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences 1998 95:10704-10709

4James Herriot, D.V.M., Every Living Thing, 1992, Pan Books, pp. 66-67

5Matthew Louis Hughes, Surgeon-Captain, Mediterranean, Malta, or undulant fever, 1897 Macmillan and Co., Limited

Sincerely,

Sierra Dawn Stoneberg Holt

 

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