Anti-extinction company works with tribes to bring back bison in force

Anti-extinction company works with tribes to bring back bison in force

Colossal, the company that gained attention for its efforts to bring animals back from extinction, is now partnering with indigenous groups to bring back bison and other endangered animals.

If the bison population has started to come back in recent years, it is mainly thanks to crossbreeding with cattle. Colossal’s idea is to revitalize the bison population by using the few pure animals that remain.

The Texas-based bioscience company has gained attention for its efforts to bring back woolly mammoths, Tasmanian tigers and dodo monkeys.

As part of this latest initiative, the company announced the creation of an Indigenous council and is looking to expand its tribal partnerships. Jason Baldes, executive director of the Wind River Tribal Buffalo Initiative and vice chair of the Inter-Tribal Buffalo Council, hopes Colossal’s genetic expertise could one day allow bison to roam the landscape.

The National Park Service estimates that as many as 60 million bison once roamed much of North America, including Wisconsin. Some archaeological evidence suggests that there were hundreds of millions of bison on the continent before European settlers arrived.

During the 19th century, whites slaughtered millions of bison for their hides, leaving carcasses containing up to 800 pounds of meat to rot. In the late 19th century, this waste was encouraged to deprive Indigenous peoples of their way of life and force them onto reservations.

Ben Lamm, co-founder and CEO of Colossal, said Indigenous people understand that bison are essential to the ecosystem. For example, native prairie grasses depend on bison to graze, grind and fertilize so they can be revitalized, and bison, in turn, depend on prairie grasses for sustenance.

“It’s important for us to understand the cultural, spiritual and ecological knowledge of the original inhabitants of the area and those who were stewards of the land and the environment,” he said. “We’ve learned a lot in a short period of time (from Indigenous peoples) about the importance of many species.”

Lamm said scientists have recently learned that bison are a vital species for carbon sequestration, which is the process of capturing and storing carbon dioxide, which can help mitigate or even reverse some of the effects of human-caused global warming.

A coveted genetic lineage is found in Yellowstone

The Inter-Tribal Buffalo Council and its 83 member tribal nations across the United States are working to return bison to tribes, including in Wisconsin. The Menominee, Oneida and Potawatomi are among the Wisconsin tribal nations that have been given bison to manage.

“It wasn’t just the Plains Indians, but all Indians have this connection to the bison,” said Bryant Waupoose, who helps manage the Menominee herd for Medicine Fish, a nonprofit he helped found.

A genetic line of bison coveted by most tribes through the Buffalo Council has been released from Yellowstone National Park because it is one of the purest. But the bison have also been affected by a devastating disease called brucellosis, which causes miscarriages and infertility, and transfers of bison out of the park have been limited for fear of spreading the disease. It can also be transmitted to humans as undulant fever.

Baldes hopes Colossal’s work in genetics can help alleviate the disease.

Colossal also plans to support the foundations of traditional conservation efforts and identify the key pressures driving extinction.

Lamm said Colossal will also help raise awareness about the importance of reintroducing bison and other animals into the wild, while helping to promote Indigenous ecological knowledge.

Company wants to spread indigenous message

Baldes said he had extensive conversations with Colossal representatives and had many questions about the science and potential moral dilemmas. He said they addressed all of his concerns as they developed a strategy using indigenous thinking to move forward.

Baldes said he’s not interested in some of Colossal’s other projects, such as reintroducing the endangered woolly mammoth. But he’s intrigued by the company’s efforts to revitalize other endangered animal species that are ecologically vital and important to tribal nations, such as salmon, beaver and red and gray wolves.

The gray wolf plays an important role in Ojibwe culture in northern Wisconsin, and tribes have strongly opposed recent state-sanctioned kills in the Northwoods.

Tribal researchers and scientists have discovered that wolves play a vital role in the ecosystem.

Matt James, Colossal’s animal welfare manager, said part of his job is to help convince society that the Indigenous emphasis on the intrinsic value of nature and finding ways to coexist with it works and is vital to our survival.

“If people are afraid of wolves because they’ve been told myths over generations, we can help debunk some of those myths,” James said. “We can help debunk some of those myths. If people are afraid of bison because of health concerns, we can help solve that problem through genetic improvement by combining a traditional approach with a synthetic biology approach.”

Frank Vaisvilas is a former Report for America fellow who covers Native American issues in Wisconsin at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Contact him at [email protected] or 815-260-2262. Follow me

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