We wish you a Merry Christmas, Io Saturnalia, Happy Hannukkah (just past), a Super Solstice, a fond Kwanza, and joyous Seasons Greetings.
Our December has been a bit frantic. Mike judged the Western Bison Association buffalo show and sale at the Golden Spike in Ogden, Utah, with his long-time friend, Garrett Brown. The two had a wonderful time looking at championship bison, arguing their merits, and picking the winners. If you are a buffalo person, the absolute finest animals in the United States are sold at the Western Bison Association Show in Ogden. The highlight of the show came when Mike and Garrett “judged” the yard crew–the guys who work the animals in the pens and care for their needs. Given the poor bone, lousy carcass yields, long toes, and inferior confirmation, they had no choice but to make “no award.”
Once home, we were thrust headlong into the bison “purity” controversy. Based on insufficient science, various conservation and environmental groups are calling for the listing of genetically “pure” bison under the Endangered Species Act. They believe, without justification, that only 6,000-10,000 pure bison exist in the U.S. today. Keep in mind that 95% of all bison are cared for on private ranches, but only about 1-2 % of privately owned bison have been DNA tested. At Red Canyon Ranch, for example, we tested all of our animals back in the 1990s, and Stormont labs certified them as “pure.” We know for a fact that our animals and the few others on private ranches that have been tested were never included in the “conservation” statistics. Conservation groups list only one private herd–Ted Turner’s in New Mexico–as being 100% bison. The problem here is that the bison genome has never been fully sequenced, or decoded, so no one knows what constitutes “pure.” Until it has been, as well as the genomes of several prehistoric bison species (so that we have an actual evolutionary history of the bison genome), the discussion should remain academic. It hasn’t, and that’s the problem.
Here at Red Canyon Ranch we believe in the preservation of ALL unique bison genetics. Even those that might have a few cattle genes mixed in. The bison industry is filled with conscientious, fair-minded people who are encouraging genetic diversity in bison and, for the most part, slowly weeding out cattle genes. In short, the goal should be a simple one: protect bison genetics. Period. What we find repulsive is the notion that a few fringe activists wish to impose their standards on an entire industry, drowning us with new federal regulation. If they succeed in getting any bison listed as ”endangered species” and placed under the administration of the Fish and Wildlife Service, our industry will have a new master in addition to the current “masters.” We are already administered by the USDA, as well as State agriculture boards.
Currently, according to the best statistics, we have roughly 450,000 bison in North America. The activists, without any data, have made the assumption that with the exception of Turner’s Vermejo herd, ALL bison in private herds are “impure,” which means some of the animals have a few cattle genes. When bison were on the edge of extinction in the late nineteenth century, five ranches saved them. They caught every bison they could find and brought them to safety on their ranches. They were cattle ranchers, so there were cattle preesent. Bison share 99% of their DNA sequence with beef cattle, so they can interbreed. Some of them did, and we find that legacy in bison today. It’s a small percentage of their genome of some animals, less than 1%, but there are those who think these animals should be classified as “impure,” that they should be segregated, and it should be a crime to breed an impure bison to a pure one, and impure bison found in otherwise pure herds should be slaughtered. Already ranches and conservation groups across America have begun a test-separate-kill policy, which means we are seeing many buffalo slaughtered because they are “impure.” Because of this ill-informed notion we’re losing rare bison genetics every day.
The concept of genetic “purity” is a very dangerous one. We did this with people once. If you had so much as 1/64th “Negro” blood, or American Indian blood, you were impure. A lesser sort of human. Others, carried away by the notion of blending politics and “Eugenics” created the notion of the Master Race. The government made laws about who could marry, segregated the lesser humans from the pure, and finally initiated a “final solution” to rid themselves of the genetically inferior. If you’re clueless about what we’re talking about, look up “National Socialism”, the “Third Reich”, and “Final Solution.”
What bothers us here are the parallel thought processes behind “pure” bison and eugenics. It smacks of 1936. And, like back then, the promoters don’t have any baseline data to determine what a “pure” bison really is. Until they do, we can only hope that the politicians in Washington are too busy with the economy to saddle nearly a half million bison and the ranchers who care for them with a whole new federal agency, pages of paperwork, and permits that result in the destruction of the bison genome.
In another curious parallel, we’re having problems defining what a “pure” human is–and believe us, people have spent a ton of money and millions of research hours working on the human genome. Recently, Svante Paabo’s team in Germany discovered that Europeans and Northern Asians inherited as much as 6% of their genome from Neanderthals. We hope you’ve read our RAISING ABLE novel. So, are people with Neanderthal DNA still fully human? Or should those who contain such genes be labeled inferior, segregated, and, well…culled?
Okay, that was a really scary thought. Enough on the genetics of “purity.”
Happiest of holidays to everyone!
Michael and Kathleen