By Adam Russel
Texas A&M [email protected]
Texas A&M AgriLife Research, including student projects, continues to advance the science related to 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 in Texas for production and conservation is focused on addressing fundamental challenges and building basic knowledge.
Barboza has overseen student research related to bison, a species that once roamed the entire length of the Great Plains within Texas A&M College’s two Departments of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
Bison could become an increasingly important animal option for ranchers in Texas, but for now they represent a niche opportunity, he said. Meat commands a premium — about $9 a pound for ground bison — but production is limited by issues ranging from parasites and disease to temperament.
Most bison are marketed as yearlings between 300,500 pounds, Barboza said. This makes the body condition of each animal and maximizing daily weight gain crucial for producers.
Many of the early projects undertaken by undergraduate and graduate students are designed to answer fundamental questions related to bison management under production conditions.
“There is an opportunity to use bison more frequently than cattle if companies want to use them at lower stocking rates and increase pasture diversity,” he said. “Bison is much more tolerant of drought, so a farm may run separate cattle and bison herds to balance economic and environmental goals for the rancher.”
Bison Research Focuses on Parasites Widespread acceptance of bison as a ranching option depends on researchers like Barboza identifying scientific methods to make them a sustainable addition to Texas ranching operations. Problems with internal and external parasites are a big problem, especially in humid regions.
“There are some realities that we need to address from a conservation and production perspective when it comes to the sustainability of bison in Texas,” he said. “We’re still moving through the basics, but every step we take helps us better understand the challenges and strategize or define boundaries.”
Blood-sucking insects like flies can injure bison directly, but they can also act as vectors for pathogens, he said. Researchers are still unsure what species of flies are attracted to bison in Texas, meaning there are no reliable means to treat them.
A bison at Lucky B Bison Ranch. Blood-eating flies and other parasites are a major hurdle for bison that aren’t adapted to the southern United States. Parasitic infestations can affect body condition scores, introduce 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 handle and manage, and their temperament poses another challenge for producers.
Some Barboza students have teamed up with local bison farms to study their body condition scores, the negative effects of blood-sucking flies, and whether bat colonies could be an effective way to control fly populations.
Bridgett Benedict, a PhD student in the Department of Ecology and Conservation Biology, has studied the effects of flies on northern ungulates, including moose and bison. Her work, “Adverse Effects of Diptera Flies on Northern Ungulates: Rangifers, Alces, and Bison,” published in Mammal Review, examined the cumulative harm of bites and transmitted diseases in relation to body condition and exposure to pests.
Benedict’s work helped lay the groundwork for how flies can affect production, including body condition and daily weight gain, Barboza said.
Another study by an undergraduate student at the department, Wyatt Stinebaugh, drew on Benedict’s research. It focused on whether bats could have a commensal relationship with bison, which could make introduced bat colonies a potential biological method to control fly populations.
Stinebaugh deployed acoustic monitoring devices between March and November 2021 at seven sites — two with bison, one site with cattle, and four control sites without cattle. Insects were also caught at the sites from March to May 2021.
The study found no commensal link between bats and bison or concluded that bats would be an effective method of control, but bat colonies near sites with bison and cattle could help keep swarming events at bay.
Temperatures also play a role in the negative effects pests have on bison, Barboza said. Insect activity related to the environment and weather patterns in Texas make them a nearly year-round concern. “Some flies open the wound, others keep it open, and some live on the animal and rarely let go,” Barboza said. “We try to get the animals to an optimal body condition score and provide the solutions to keep them there, using a combination of nutrition, insect control and parasite treatment.”
Adaptations to the Southern Climate Are Key Much of the research was conducted in collaboration with the Texas Bison Association and the National Bison Association and other Texas A&M laboratories and researchers, including the Department of Entomology and the Parasitology Laboratory in the School of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.
Barboza said the work will be critical to restoring Texas’ bison herds. Most bison come from northern states like the Dakotas, where they are used to cooler climates, pests, and diseases.
The loss of south-adapted bison phenotypes is a hurdle that researchers will continue to address. The Great Plains once supported 30 to 50 million bison, including those better adapted to the southern climate and the vermin that thrive there.
Research and breeding programs could help bison establish new adaptations as bison are selected for traits better suited to Texas and production, including temperament and parasites, he said.
“Bison is still a niche market, so it’s difficult for small producers to find value, reliability and consistent performance under normal conditions,” Barboza said. “Bison can tolerate a lot of things if we can overcome problems with nutrition, insects, and parasites.”