Home on the Bison Ranch


Helping to Keep Bison Genetics Strong

      
by BC Farms & Food  -  Permalink
August 14, 2017

Ethical farming is helping to preserve bison on Vancouver Island.

Bison grazing on pasture amid stands of trees.

Today, it’s hard to envision the millions of bison that once thundered across the North American prairies. Continuous herds, hundreds of miles long, roamed the plains in a great migration from northern Mexico to Canada. These imposing animals grazed on native grasses, left droppings to enrich the soil, and disturbed the ground with their hooves, helping create a rich ecosystem that allowed prairie plants and animals to thrive.

A wood bison at home on the bison ranch.

Wood bison

A plains bison at home on the bison ranch

Plains bison

As many as 60 million of these great animals once flourished in North America. But as settlers moved in, deliberate shooting, habitat loss and disease, drastically wiped out the herds. By 1890, less than 1,000 of these wild grazing animals remained.

Today, bison are “ecologically extinct” as a wild species and their vast open range habitat is gone. Although some 500,000 of these herbivores currently exist in North America, most have been cross-bred with cattle over the years, and are no longer pure wild bison. Two wild species, wood bison and plains bison, survive in small numbers.

Preserving Wild Bison

In Black Creek on Vancouver Island, Marc Vance of Island Bison Ranch strives to preserve wild bison lines.

“We really feel it’s important to watch for the genetics and be supportive of those that are trying to keep clean genetics,” he said. “The genetic pool is quite small. So, whatever we can do to maintain strong genetics… I think it’s a responsibility we have.” Currently, about 40 percent of the cows in the herd are plains or wood bison. The ranch has three DNA-tested plains bulls, and three wood bulls as core breeding animals.

Ethical Farming

At Island Bison, which raises animals for meat, the bison range over large pastures broken with stands of forest, mud wallows, dust pits and natural freshwater springs. Vance walks slowly among these shaggy ruminants to maintain a sense of peacefulness. “We want the pasture to be a happy place for them,” he said.

A bison herd, including a young calf, grazes on grass at Island Bison Ranch. To Vance, ethical farming means giving animals the food, shelter, and social and physical space they need. “The bison want to be left alone. Give me my grass and my family, and stay out of my way,” he said. “The more we leave them alone, the better they do.”

The herd is the bisons’ security. “It’s a huge family,” he said. “They look after one another; they protect one another. When a new calf is born…you’ll see numerous mothers and even breeding bulls come up and lick and sort of welcome the new calf into the herd. There’s a lot to learn from these animals. Even in the way that we treat our own families.”

Video: Home on the Bison Ranch

Expanding the Herd

With grass-fed animals, land is a limitation to herd size. Currently farming 320 acres, the ranch is looking to expand the herd through land acquisition. The interest in bison and low-fat bison meat is growing as people look not only for the health benefits in meat, but also to know the animals have been cared for ethically. “If we can get more land,” Vance said, “we can sell more bison. There’s a demand for it because it’s a healthy grass-fed meat.”

A bison calf at home on the bison ranch.

 
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