Students explore key issues for bison management in Texas – Kiowa County Signal

By Adam Russell
Texas A&M adam.russell@ag.tamu.edu

Texas A&M AgriLife Research, including student projects, continues to advance the science of bison management in Texas 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 the sustainability of bison production and conservation in Texas is focused on solving key problems and building a knowledge base. .

Barboza led student research on bison, a species that once ranged across the Great Plains, within two faculties of the Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Bison may become an increasingly important livestock option for Texas farmers, but for now they are an opportunity, he said. The meat commands a premium — about $9 a pound for ground bison — but production is limited by problems ranging from parasites and disease to temperament.

Most bison sell for between 300,500 pounds annually, Barboza said. This makes it vital for producers to maximize each animal’s body condition and daily weight gain.

Most of the first projects, carried out by undergraduate and graduate students, were designed to answer basic questions about bison management under production conditions.

“If businesses want to use bison less sparingly than cattle and increase rangeland diversity, they have the opportunity to use it more,” he said. “Bison are more drought tolerant, so an operation can manage separate cattle and bison herds to balance a farmer’s economic and environmental goals.”

Bison research focused on parasites. The widespread adoption of bison as a livestock production option depends on researchers like Barboza identifying scientific methodologies to make them a sustainable addition to Texas ranching operations. Internal and external parasite problems are a major problem, especially in humid regions.

“When it comes to bison sustainability in Texas, there are some realities we have to deal with from a conservation and production perspective,” he said. “We’re still moving forward with the basics, but every step we take helps us better understand problems, develop strategies, or identify limitations.”

Blood-feeding insects such as flies can directly injure bison, he said, but can also act as vectors for pathogens. Researchers don’t yet know exactly what types of flies are attracted to bison in Texas, meaning there is no reliable cure for them.

A bison at Lucky B Bison Ranch. Blood-feeding flies and other parasites are a major obstacle for bison that are not adapted to the southern U.S. Parasite infestations can affect body condition, cause 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 more difficult to control and manage, and their temperament adds another challenge for manufacturers.

Several of Barboza’s students have worked with bison on local farms to study their body condition, the negative effects of blood-feeding flies and whether bat colonies are an effective way to control fly populations.

Bridgett Benedict, a graduate student in the Department of Ecology and Conservation Biology, studied the effects of flies on northern ungulates, including moose and bison. His paper, “Adverse effects of Diptera flies on northern ungulates: Rangifer, Alces, and bison,” published in Mammal Review examined the cumulative damage of bites and vector disease in relation to body condition and pest exposure.

Benedict’s work helped lay the groundwork for understanding how flies can affect production, including body condition and daily weight gain, Barboza said.

Another study by Wyatt Stinebaugh, an undergraduate student in the department, diverged from Benedict’s research. This focused on whether bats have a commensal relationship with bison, which could make bat colonies a potential biological way to control fly populations.

Stinebaugh used acoustic monitoring equipment between March and November 2021 at seven sites — two with bison, one with cattle, and four control sites — between March and November 2021.

The study did not find a commensal relationship between bats and bison or conclude that bats would be an effective control method, but bat colonies near areas with bison and cattle may help control mating events.

Barboza said temperature is also a factor in the pest’s negative impact on bison. Environmentally related insect activity and Texas weather conditions make them a year-round problem. “Some flies open the wound, some keep it open, and some live on the animal and rarely leave,” Barboza said. “We try to adapt the animals to their body condition and provide solutions to keep them there through a combination of diet, insect control and parasite treatment.”

Key to adaptation to southern climates Much of the research was in collaboration with the Texas Bison Association and the National Bison Association and other laboratories and researchers at Texas A&M, including the Department of Entomology and the Laboratory of Parasitology in the School of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

Barboza said the work will be critical to the recovery of bison herds in Texas. Most bison come from northern states like the Dakotas and are adapted to the cooler climates, pests and diseases there.

The loss of bison phenotypes adapted to the south is a hurdle that researchers will continue to address. The Great Plains once supported 30 million to 50 million bison, including those that are better adapted to and thrive in southern climates.

Research and breeding programs can help bison develop new adaptations as bison are selected for attributes better 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 value and reliability and consistent performance under normal circumstances,” Barboza said. “Bison can tolerate a lot if we can solve past problems with diet, insects and parasites.”

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