Changing of the guard – Schad Gallery welcomes North America’s largest land animal

Posted: July 21, 2011 - 09:32 , by royal

A long awaited addition to the Royal Ontario Museum was installed today in the Life in Crisis: Schad Gallery of Biodiversity. Our new North American Plains Bison (Bison bison bison) wears his shaggy winter coat and munches on grass, a key component of his vegetarian diet. Weighing about 360 kg (or 800 lbs) today, this large specimen was prepared for the ROM by the same taxidermist who prepared the White Rhino also on display in the Schad Gallery. When alive, this bull was a domestic breeding bison on a farm in Bancroft, Ontario and would have weighted about 900 kg (or 2,000 lbs).

The natural history low-down…

As recently as 200 years ago, the plains of North America were home to some 30 to 70 million free ranging bison. First Nations people relied on the animals for food, shelter and clothing, and used the resource sustainably. Bison numbers plummeted in the late 1800s as European settlers and commercial hunters killed millions in just a few short years. With the help of captive breeding, bison have been reintroduced into a number of locations around North America. Today there are less than 1,000 free ranging wild plains bison in Canada, most of which come from three herds found within protected areas in Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia. There are potential opportunities for reintroductions on federal, state, and provincial lands in some jurisdictions as well as establishing herds on Native-owned lands that are managed for combined conservation and socio-economic purposes.

Conservation Controversy

Conservation of the species is riddled with controversy. Today, the plains bison is listed as a threatened species in Canada, but not in the United States. Because the animals are far better at surviving on the dry, arid plains of the west, domesticated herds were preferred over beef cattle, and today there are over 400,000 individuals contained in ranches, reserves and private facilities. Domestication of the species, coupled with the shear reduction in wild herds, has caused a bottle-neck in genetic variation and reintroduction efforts are hindered with debate about pure source animals. Further complicating the matter is disease: anthrax, bovine tuberculosis and brucellosis are all fatal to bison and were all brought to their habitat by humans, mostly from Europe. Cattle ranchers, government protected area managers, First Nations people, zoological institutions and environmental groups are attempting to work together to conserve wild bison, improve ecological integrity and protect the livelihood of the ranchers.

Where did the baby bison go?

During the hullabaloo of this morning’s activities, it seems the baby bison, previously alone in the case, has gone missing. ROM staff isn’t sounding any alarm bells yet, but there is an air of concern… please get in touch if you see this little guy.