Gregg Adams wants people to understand that wood bison are in great danger.
"There's an imminent threat and we worry a lot about their very existence, their survival into the next generation," said Adams, a veterinarian and professor at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM) at the University of Saskatchewan (U of S).
But Adams said the species can be saved with science.
He spoke with the media Wednesday after Genome Prairie and Genome Canada announced $5.1 million in funding for a "genomic sequencing project" launched with the intent of saving wood bison. The announcement was made at the International Bison Conference in Saskatoon.
Researchers with Genome Prairie, which facilitates advanced research in genomics and bioscience, will collaborate with experts from Parks Canada and the WCVM at the U of S on the project.
Adams said the threat to the wood bison exists within the animals. They faced near-extinction about 100 years ago.
The herds have since rebounded, growing from a few hundred to several thousand, but the way they repopulated was problematic.
The herds were so small that there was inbreeding and crossbreeding between subspecies. Adams said the animals now lack genetic diversity.
Disease is also running rampant through the creatures. He said it's critical the culturally important animals be saved.
"It's been such a historically important species, but also from an evolutionary point of view it is a keystone species on the prairie and within the northern boreal regions," he said. "If we remove that keystone, the arch falls."
He is hopeful this project will secure that metaphorical keystone.
The project has been dubbed the Bison Integrated Genomics (BIG) project and will be co-led by Genome Prairie and Genome Alberta with support from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada.
"Diversity is in peril," said Mike Cey, who is the CEO of Genome Prairie, which run genomics projects in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. "This is our best opportunity to to ensure that we're keeping a population as healthy as it can possibly be and ideally a growing population."
Cey said this project will rely on "genomic space tools." Researchers will sequence the whole wood bison genome and analyze the information to understand its full genetic composition.
He said researchers can then make decisions on how to develop a gene bio-bank — a collection of samples — that will help understand the range of genetic diversity and lead to the creation of more diverse bison.
Creating a new vaccine
Researchers on the BIG project will also work to address the disease running rampant within Wood bison.
The scientists plan to develop "more sensitive and specific genome-based diagnostic tools" to identify the diseases, but they will also work toward a new vaccine.
"We're looking, as part of the BIG project, to develop a combined vaccine, so one that protects against both bovine tuberculosis and bovine brucellosis, which has never really been done before," said Todd Shury, acting manager of Wildlife Health and Management for Parks Canada and wildlife veterinarian.
He said the diseases have been stubborn over the last 50 to 100 years.
"Bovine tuberculosis in these infected populations is about 25 to 50 per cent, depending how you look for it. Brucellosis: the prevalence is around 30 per cent."
Shury said they will target the bison in the Wood Buffalo National Park area, which is the country's largest national park situated in Alberta. It formed in 1922 to protect the last remaining herds of bison in northern Canada.
Shury said there are about 5,000 bison roaming in the area, which is comparable in size to Switzerland.
"That's why we decided to look at an oral vaccine. That's probably about the only option to deliver a large number of doses to a population that's geographically separated and isolated," he said. "You want to have a vaccine that's going to be very efficacious — that you maybe just give one single dose over the lifetime of the animal."
The vaccine will be developed and manufactured in collaboration with Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization (VIDO) at the U of S, using its newly completed vaccine development facility.
Adams is hopeful the BIG project can influence conservation efforts in the decades ahead. He said the establishment of the bison genome biobank will allow them to "rescue" the genetics from isolated herds, which can't physically mix because of disease concerns, and spread them.
The goal is to transfer "germplasm," creating more genetically diverse herds across North America.
The project is funded for three years, with $3.8 million from federal funding for genomics research and $1.3 million is from provincial governments, businesses and research partners across Canada.