The WCVM’s Specialized Livestock Research Facility has wood bison as an ongoing conservation effort.

Where the bison roam

The bison come charging into the building, and I quietly shut the hydraulic gate behind them. This is a favourite part of my day in my job as a summer research student at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM). The strength and power of these wild animals fill the entire room with energy.

It's an honour to work with bison, a species that that was saved from the brink of extinction. About 60 million bison existed before 1870, but overharvesting and habitat loss caused their numbers to drop to less than 300 wood and plains bison by the early 1900s.

Today, there are about 30,000 wild bison in 65 conservation herds in North America plus a few hundred thousand commercially-raised animals. It has taken decades and the efforts of many people, but the bison population is now recovering in a delicate balance of conservation, management and farming.

The WCVM's Specialized Livestock Research Facility is contributing to conservation efforts for wildlife species such as the wood bison. It's also helping researchers learn more about specialized livestock. Built in 2000, the facility is designed to support scientific research on ungulates — hoofed mammals such as elk, deer, reindeer and bison — with handling areas to meet each animal's unique needs.

Veterinarians use the facility to study the physiology of native ungulates that are suitable for farming and to address key questions that are impossible to examine without close handling and expertise.

The facility includes three specialized chute systems — each with a squeeze designed to safely restrain the animal. There are also paddocks and fences that allow low-stress grouping and movement of animals as well as a laboratory to support the collection and analysis of samples.

"There are so many things that are easy to do with cattle but difficult to do with bison," says Dr. Murray Woodbury, who pioneered the research facility's development. The associate professor is also the Specialized Livestock Research Chair at the WCVM.

"We were often told that we wouldn't be able to do what we do with these animals, but through the facility's design, there has been a lot of success."

Working at the Specialized Livestock Research Facility has made my life quite interesting this summer. It's a great day at work when you are told to "gently hold the deer's head till she wakes up" or "be adaptable with the probe if the bison tries to lie down – she goes down, you go down too." Since I'm just shy of six feet tall, "getting low with a bison" is a dynamic workout for me.

Through these experiences, I've learned how we can closely handle these animals safely and humanely, answer critical questions about the physiology of wild ungulates, and address pressing conservation concerns in a changing environmental landscape.

Research that occurs at the centre inherently plays two important roles: informing alternative livestock science and understanding wildlife physiology to inform conservation.

"In the early days, we didn't even know what diseases they [these animal species] got," says Woodbury. He adds that past research has helped to answer fundamental questions about specialized livestock including vaccination protocols, reproduction, pain control and anesthesia.

Researchers come from around North America to use this unique facility. This summer, Drs. Jordyn Boesch and Robin Gleed of Cornell University along with Dr. Nigel Caulkett of the University of Calgary collaborated with WCVM faculty to measure the effects of hypoxia (loss of oxygen in tissues) from an anesthetic drug commonly used on deer.

Through in-depth monitoring of the heart and lungs of deer, they examined the physiological mechanics behind the oxygen loss. Their findings will help reduce harmful effects to deer that are anesthetized on farms and in the wild.

WCVM professor Dr. Gregg Adams and his graduate students, Drs. Miriam Cervantes and Manuel Palomino, regularly use the facility to do one-of-a-kind research. They're examining artificial reproductive technologies, and their project is critical to the conservation of the threatened wood bison.

The research team is working with the WCVM's herd of 50 wood bison to produce disease-free sperm and embryos. They're also learning how to successfully use artificial reproductive technologies to pass on the bison species' genetics without mixing diseased and healthy animals.

Mary von der Porten and Dr. Manuel Palomino examine the reproductive tract of a female bison.

This work is essential because modern threats to wild bison include endemic brucellosis and bovine tuberculosis — two highly transmissible and debilitating diseases. Facilitating disease-free bison embryo transfer offers a critical tool in the conservation of our wild herds by ensuring that the genetics can be passed on without disease. The work will help to keep free-roaming bison, domestic livestock and people free of disease.

Once our research at the farm is done for the day, my last duty is to open the gate and let the animals out into the large pasture. They canter out the gate with conviction, loudly splashing through the mud. They seem happy to be meeting friends again, and they immediately start wallowing in the field, munching on fresh grass and drinking from the pond.

I laugh when they buck and gallop with joy at being done the research trial. We all need to celebrate a job well done.

After a summer of research, I know that the WCVM's Specialized Livestock Research Facility doesn't just offer unique, world class research. It's also a wonderfully interesting and truly creative place to work.


Mary von der Porten of Vancouver, B.C., is a second-year veterinary student who was part of the WCVM's Undergraduate Summer Research and Leadership program in 2014. Mary's story is part of a series of articles written by WCVM summer research students. 
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