Wild American plains bison (Bison bison) populations virtually disappeared in the late 1800s, with some remnant animals retained in what would become Yellowstone National Park and on private ranches. Some of these private bison were intentionally crossbred with cattle for commercial purposes. This forced hybridization resulted in both mitochondrial and nuclear introgression of cattle genes into some of the extant bison genome. As the private populations grew, excess animals, along with their history of cattle genetics, provided founders for newly established public bison populations. Of the US public bison herds, only those in Yellowstone and Wind Cave National Parks (YNP and WCNP) appear to be free of detectable levels of cattle introgression. However, a small free-ranging population (~350 animals) exists on public land, along with domestic cattle, in the Henry Mountains (HM) of southern Utah. This isolated bison herd originated from a founder group translocated from YNP in the 1940s. Using genetic samples from 129 individuals, we examined the genetic status of the HM population and found no evidence of mitochondrial or nuclear introgression of cattle genes. This new information confirms it is highly unlikely for free-living bison to crossbreed with cattle, and this disease-free HM bison herd is valuable for the long-term conservation of the species. This bison herd is a subpopulation of the YNP/WCNP/HM metapopulation, within which it can contribute significantly to national efforts to restore the American plains bison to more of its native range.
Ranglack DH, Dobson LK, du Toit JT, Derr J (2015) Genetic Analysis of the Henry Mountains Bison Herd. PLoS ONE 10(12): e0144239. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0144239