Tag: bison research

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Also in our weekly best of the web: Why “climate change = impending disaster” doesn’t work; drones search for rare pygmy rabbits; and why scientists should talk to reporters.

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Climate Change and the Future of Bison

When the world gets warmer, what happens to bison and other grassland grazers such as cattle? A new paper, based on research conducted at Nature Conservancy preserves, is helping answer that question.

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Bison Bellows and Bones: Student-Scientists on the Prairie

Editor’s Note: At the Samuel H. Ordway Prairie Preserve, students from Gustavus Adolphus College will soon be arriving to follow bison herds for the summer. This research program is not only taking an in-depth look at animal behavior, it’s also providing information on how to best manage bison on fenced reserves. Today, we’re running a previously published blog on last year’s student researchers at Ordway Prairie.

I’m in the back seat of the vehicle as two female college students drive around, listen to music and—in their words—“look for guys.”

Just another evening for students on break, right?

Well, not quite.

These students aren’t driving to a party, nor are they cruising around downtown. There is no town. For that matter, there’s no road.

We’re bouncing around mixed grass prairie in South Dakota, the four-wheel-drive pick-up thumping over ruts and rocks. The vehicle’s loaded with notebooks, GPS units and animal bones.

And the”guys”?

They’re large, shaggy and prone to bellowing, wallowing and urinating on themselves.

They’re bison bulls, the subject of these students’ summer research project.

Michelle Hulke and Mary Joy Sun, entering their sophomore years at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota, have spent day after day recording the bison bulls’ fights, vocalizations and even tongue positions.

It’s a research effort aimed at determining if bison bull behavior can be managed to produce more genetically diverse herds in fenced preserves and ranches, the type of environments where most bison herds now roam.

Hulke and Sun are the sixth set of Gustavus Adolphus students to research herd behavior at The Nature Conservancy’s Samuel H. Ordway Prairie Preserve, a 7,800-acre grassland property near Leola. Each year, students at Gustavus Adolphus have the opportunity to participate in research projects following their freshmen year. The bison project has become one of the most popular.

Conservancy preserves and projects offer the perfect outdoor laboratories for undergraduate field research. The Conservancy employs mentors in the form of 550 scientists, and many projects already have a “science infrastructure”—the tools, established research protocols and housing and logistics that support fieldwork. Students learn not only science but also community relations, marketing and land management.

Preserves are places where budding scientists can develop their skills and contribute to meaningful conservation. It’s a place where tomorrow’s conservation leaders can gain field experience in spectacular settings.

In this case, that means living amongst bison herds.

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A Bull Fight for Conservation

The bison bull sticks out his tongue, tests the air, and bellows: a sound part that’s lion’s roar, part rolling thunder.

Clearly agitated, the bull bellows again, then begins urinating, spraying himself frenetically. He rolls in a patch of bare earth, finally rising—covered in an aromatic blend of excrement and prairie dust.

He looks around for challengers. None seem ready to take him on—this time. For the past several weeks, though, the prairie has been alive with bison bulls bluffing, sparring and head-butting their way to be the dominant male.

All that battling is tough, exhausting work for a bison bull. But new research being conducted at The Nature Conservancy’s Samuel H. Ordway Prairie Preserve suggests this fighting – and lots of it – is key to maintaining the genetic health of bison.

Studying bison interactions may help managers make better decisions on fenced preserves and ranches — where most bison roam today.

Jon Grinell, professor of biology at Gustavus Adolphus College, has been leading student research on bison at the Ordway Prairie for six years. The effort started as animal behavior research on rutting bulls, but the scientists found that bull competition could even help ensure the long-term survival of the species.

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