One of the first outcomes of the Department of the Interior (DOI) Bison Conservation Initiative was the Bison Conservation Genetics Workshop held in Nebraska in September 2008. The workshop brought together scientists from government agencies and non-governmental organizations with professional population geneticists to develop guidance for the genetic management of the federal bison herds. The scientists agreed on the basic tenets of genetic management for the DOI herds and discussed different approaches to meeting those goals. First, the 12 DOI herds are an irreplaceable resource for the long-term conservation of North American plains bison. Most of the herds show low levels of cattle introgression dating from the time when they were saved from extirpation; those herds should not be mixed without careful consideration as to their origin. Herds that show no evidence of cattle ancestry by the current molecular methods are the highest priority for protection from genetic mixing with any other bison herds. Second, despite the fact that most of the herds now managed by the U.S. government were founded with very few bison and have been maintained for many generations at relatively low population sizes, they do not show obvious effects of inbreeding. They have retained significant amounts of genetic variation by the standard measures, heterozygosity and allelic diversity. This may be explained in part by the fact that most of these herds are not remnants of a single population. Third, to preserve genetic variation in federal bison herds over decades and centuries, herds should be managed at a population or metapopulation level of 1,000 animals or more, with a sex ratio that enables competition between breeding bulls. The parks and refuges that currently have bison herds, with the exception of Yellowstone National Park, do not have enough land to support a population of this size. In the short term, it will be important to develop satellite herds to attain population targets, and develop a metapopulation structure between herds.
Fourth and finally, the current methods used to evaluate the DOI bison herds, using mitochondrial DNA and a suite of nuclear DNA microsatellites, are highly informative at the herd level. They have confirmed relatedness of herds that we know from historical records have a common origin. They have detected cattle ancestry in most of the herds where it was suspected and have shown some loss of rare alleles. However, they do not sample across the bison genome, and the use of neutral genetic markers as the basis for selection of individual bison—either to breed or move to other herds—would be better supported by more high-resolution molecular methods currently under development.