Bison Research in Canada

Larissa Helbig, Master of Science  Student
Western College of Veterinary Medicine
University of Saskatchewan



In 1999 a strategic planning committee gathered and the Bison Research and Development Working Groups (BRADWG) was formed. The mission of BRADWG is “to provide direction so research within the developing bison industry can occur in a timely, efficient and logical manner in order to preserve the uniqueness and holistic nature of the bison while encouraging expansion and maintaining profitability” (Rutley, B.D.). This committee is to represent a broad spectrum of individuals involved in the bison industry.  The function of this group is to develop and prioritize research needs for the bison industry as well as identify bison research currently being undertaken.  The Bison 2000: A Strategic Plan for Research and Development Needs of the Canadian Bison Industry (Rutley, B.D. (1)) document prepared for BRADWG in 2001 is to aid the research community in developing timely and valuable research projects as well as assist governmental and industry funding agencies in allocating research funds. This approach will result in a strong, efficient and sustainable bison industry now and far into the future.

Ongoing Research at the University of Saskatchewan

1) A Study of Seasonal Fertility and Onset of Puberty in Male Bison
Larissa Helbiga, M.Sc. Student, Dr. J.C. Haigh, DVM, and Dr. M. Woodbury, DVM
Western College of Veterinary Medicine
University of Saskatchewan; Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada
a Email:  Phone: (306)966-7190


As the bison industry grows, the need for further understanding of the development of the animal is essential.  In regards to the bulls, there is a need for knowledge of the age at which a bull can be used as a successful breeding bull.  Along with attainment of puberty, there is the desire to understand the seasonal reproductive cycle of the male bison, if one exists.  With these research goals, and their implications on the bison industry, comes the need for development of standards specific to bison to be used during routine breeding soundness examinations.


1) Determine the age at which bison males go through puberty and observe changes in semen quality and hormone levels throughout this time.  Also, to determine the effect that age and weight might have on the initiation and termination of puberty.

2) Determine the seasonal variations in semen quality, hormone levels and testicular tissues in male bison from abattoir bulls.

3) Begin to develop standards for bison breeding soundness examinations as they are becoming standard practice in sales of breeding bulls.

Progress to date

To date, all the sample collection has been completed from herds in Alberta and Saskatchewan.  Entry of data is nearly complete and analysis will start in the fall of 2002.  The project should be complete by May of 2003, with results being distributed to producers, veterinarians and scientists via industry publications, scientific journals and presentations at meetings and conventions.

2) Bison Marketing Project

Dr. Jill Hobbs, PhD
Specialized Livestock Marketing Research Group
Department of Agricultural Economics
University of Saskatchewan; Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada
Email:  Phone: (306)966-2445


This is a four-phase project being funded by the Saskatchewan Bison Association and by the Canada-Saskatchewan Agri-Food Innovation Fund (AFIF).  Initiatives of this project are aimed at assisting the Saskatchewan bison industry with future product development and marketing strategies.

Project phases

  1. Initial consumer preference trials for value-added bison products
  2. New value-added product development and follow-up consumer preference trials
  3. Retail market trial
  4. Development of long-term marketing and supply chain strategies

Progress to date

Phase one of the project has been completed and data analysis has started. Objectives of this phase were to assess consumer preferences for value-added bison products, determine consumers’ willingness to pay for these products, explore avenues for further product development and identify consumer segments with specific preferences and attitudes towards bison.

The results of this phase will be available later this summer and will be written as a report for the Saskatchewan Bison Association and a series of papers.

Ongoing Bison Research in Alberta

1) Hook Lake Bison Recovery Project – Community Perceptions
Janna van Kessela, M.Sc. Student, Dr. Robert J. Hudsonb, PhD
University of Alberta; Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
a Email:
b Email:  Phone:  (780)492-2111


The purpose of this project was to determine the cultural consistency of the Hook Lake Wood Bison Recovery Project (HLWBRP) as perceived by residents of Fort Resolution, Northwest Territory, Canada (Rutley, B.D. (1)).


Objectives of this study were to determine community perceptions of the HLWBRP and to describe community priorities for future care of the HLWBRP and HL wild herds. This project also looked at what the perceptions of the community were towards possible commercial options and opportunities for the future.

 Preliminary findings

Language and terminology seemed to be one of the key focus areas.  Many residents stated that they were unfamiliar with scientific terms and many elders preferred to communicate in their native language. Also, the community had expressed a desire to become more involved during handling and project meetings, as well as with developing school programs that would incorporate scientific knowledge along with traditional knowledge.  The community members are interested in becoming more involved and learning more about the HLWBRP and sharing their own knowledge.

2) Critical Bison Habitats

Tanja Schramm
University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
Dr. Robert J. Hudson, PhD
Email:  Phone:  (780)492-2111
Information regarding critical bison habitats is available by contacting the above individuals.

3) Determination of Carcass Characteristics of Finished Bison Heifers

Dr. Bruce Rutleya, PhD and Dr. Jennifer Aalhusb, PhD
a Boreal R&D and Peace Country Bison Association
Fariview, Alberta, Canada
Email:  Phone: (780)835-3786 or (780)835-8785
b Lacombe Research Centre, Lacombe, Alberta, Canada
Email:  Phone: (403)782-8116  


As the bison industry continues to grow, it is essential to the industry’s development to develop a more complete understanding of finishing, and the resulting quality of the bison meat.  Presently only males are finished as females tend to stay in breeding herds. However, as the industry remains on the upward trend more females will start entering the meat supply chain.  Baseline research on meat quality characteristics has recently been conducted (Janz et al. 2001) for male bison, but not for finished female bison. Anecdotal data indicates that bison females tend to distribute fat differently than male bison which may result in differences in meat quality between males and females.  This leads to the question of whether the female bison will fit into the present grading system and marketing schemes.


Main project – Obtain complete assessment of meat quality of bison carcasses from finished bison females and provide the industry with basic information that will enable it to include prime female bison meat into the bison red meat market.

Companion Project – This project will evaluate differences and similarities between finishing management and carcass quality of male and female bison. 

Progress to date

The companion project has just been started.  Animals have been purchased and delivered to Ft. Vermilion, Alberta.  The feeding program has started (May 2002) and animals will be shipped to slaughter to the Lacombe Research Centre (LRC) in September/October 2002.  At that time, the project on meat quality characteristics of bison heifers will begin at the LRC.  A final report is expected to be filed with the research team leader the end of March 2003.

4) Conservation Status Survey for North American Bison for the IUCN Species Survival Commission

Delaney Boyd
Faculty of Environment Design
University of Calgary, Alberta, Canada


This project addresses whether bison conservation should be considered.  It discusses the importance of the ‘wild type’ bison and the advantages they can offer.  The project also investigates possible threats to the conservation of bison and the importance of conservation to the bison industry.


This project objective is to determine the status of plains and wood bison on a number of different levels, including numeric, geographic, demographic, and habitat.  The project also aims to identify threats to bison conservation and opportunities for conservation improvement.

5) The Role of Bison Stewardship in the Development of Sustainable Aboriginal Communities in Canada

Hugh Gibbins, Ph.D. Candidate
Faculty of Environment Design
University of Calgary, Alberta, Canada
Email: Phone: (403)220-2169


In the past, there has been a dependency of many Aboriginal groups in North America on both species of bison. With the near extinction of bison at the end of the 19th century, Aboriginal groups experienced radical cultural and economic declines. Over the past 30 years, there has been a re-emergence of interest by Aboriginal groups in bison management.


Objectives of this study are to develop an overview of Aboriginal management and/or stewardship of bison in North America, and to develop, in cooperation with Aboriginal communities, an indicator-based toolset for communities to assess the sustainability of bison stewardship projects.  Once aforementioned objectives have been met, the applicability of the toolset will be tested in several Aboriginal communities with their cooperation.

Progress to date

Literature review and compilation is near its completion.  Field research is ongoing and should be completed by the winter of 2003. A final report is expected to be finished the following winter of 2004.

Literature Cited

Rutley, B.D. ed. 2002. Bison 2000 – A Strategic Plan for Research and Development Needs of the Canadian Bison Industry. An unpublished report. February 2002.

Rutley, B.D. 2002. Bison Research and Development Working Group, Meeting Proceedings, December 12, 2001. Unpublished report. February 2002.

Janz, J.A.M., Aalhus, J.L., and Price, M.A. (2001). Blast chilling and low voltage electrical stimulation influences on bison (Bison bison) meat quality. Meat Science; 57:403-411.


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