Research has confirmed that Henry Mountains of southern Utah are home to a rare, genetically pure bison herd. This is the only genetically pure bison herd we know of, after all other surviving members of the species were crossbred with cattle.

The North American Bison. Image credits: San Diego Zoo.

The team that confirmed their genetic heritage included Utah State University scientists. Dr. Johan du Toit, professor of ecology and large mammal conservation at USU said that this herd is absolutely unique:

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“We’ve got a very, very special case in that the Henry Mountains bison is actually in fact the only population of bison in existence which is now both genetically pure and is free of the disease brucellosis and is free-ranging on public land co-mingling with cattle and is legally hunted,” du Toit said. “So, we have this very unique population which is one of a kind. It’s a large credit to the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, the Bureau of Land Management, and the local Henry Mountains Grazing Association. Over the years, they worked together to conserve this resource.”

Bison were crossbred with cattle in order to help save the population and make them better livestock animals – so they’re not exactly like their ancestors. They behave a bit differently and are more vulnerable to certain diseases. Dr. Dustin Ranglack, now at Montana State University, who lead the research, said that this heard could be pivotal in future conservation efforts.

“Now, we only have 500,000 bison but, of those, only 20,000 are what we would consider to be wild bison. Now we have a third herd of free-ranging bison that is disease-free and doesn’t show any introgression of cattle genes,” Ranglack said. “That actually makes the Henry Mountains bison, in a way, almost even more valuable than [the herd in] Yellowstone. Because of that, they can represent a really important source for potential reintroduction projects that are trying to restore bison to a large portion of their native range.”

The herd was transferred from Yellowstone National Park in the 1940’s, but only now did researchers understand its importance.