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A tiny adversary threatens efforts to restore America's national mammal

bacteria hurting bison.jpeg
Posted at 11:35 AM, Apr 19, 2022

STRASBURG, Colo. — Dave Carter makes it known that his job goes beyond raising his 300 animals – he’s in it to build back a symbol of America.

Just about anybody in this business will tell you, "the best thing is the animals, the second best thing is the people," Carter said.

He not only raises bison but just left his post of 25 years as the leader of the National Bison Association.

Once dwindled down from 50 million to 750 animals, the number of bison today between ranching, tribal and national park herds is 500,000.

"At the heart of it is this magnificent animal that has been part of these ecosystems of North America for thousands of years and has helped build healthy grasslands and has helped sustain indigenous people through the years, and so I think it's kind of special. We all feel like we're part of that restoration story," he said.

However, the current chapter of that story is being written by a microscopic opponent threatening the very progress he and others like him have worked so hard to make.

"As bison producers, we want our animals to only have one bad day and we want those herds to be healthy, and when you see something like that and you're really powerless to do something about it, it's devastating," said Carter.

What he’s talking about is Mycoplasma Bovis – a bacteria that can quickly wither away a bison, and has the ability to take out up to 60% of a herd. Last year, it killed 30% of Carter's animals. He says it’s a terrible challenge stacked up next to a series of obstacles.

"With the drought and navigating through the economic challenges we've had with the COVID pandemic, then along comes Mycoplasma and for many producers it's economically a fatal blow," he said.

Jeff Martin is the director of research at the Bison Center of Excellence at South Dakota University. The team has assembled a task force to figure out a solution to the Mycoplasma problem, which he says has been made worse by drought conditions across the plains.

"It's not just that you're having poor forage quality. You also have poor access too," he said. "As droughts happen, that water begins to dry out that concentrates and minerals and salts that are also not good for animals let alone bison. So as they're having to drink these less quality waters, that just is another compounding factor for their immune function."

Martin says what makes Mycoplasma so hard to fight is that it doesn't have a cell wall, which is what antibiotics target and makes them effective for most bacteria.

Mycoplasma is also impacting wildlife on the Great Plains like pronghorns, but cattle seem to be immune.

The USDA Farm Service Agency announced in February that it is offering indemnity payments to offset some of the losses from Mycoplasma Bovis, as there is no vaccine.

As teams of ranchers, conservationists and scientists work to save the animal, people like Carter have hope that this is just another storm to be weathered by this hearty symbol of American history.

"We just got to lower our head and we got to face the storm and work our way through it," he said.