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Blake McCann (left, beard) oversees the processing of many a bellowing bison during this year's roundup to help control herd levels at Theodore Roosevelt National Park in Medora, N.D. Iain Woessner / Forum News Service

Roundup! Bison in Theodore Roosevelt National Park rounded up, relocated

MEDORA, N.D.—A bison roundup is underway at Theodore Roosevelt National Park with the goal of relocating a portion of the park's bison population elsewhere to keep them from growing too numerous.

It's a process that calls for manpower and machinery, as bison are processed through a series of chambers and into a hydraulic mechanism that holds them in place while hair and blood samples can be collected and tags affixed.

The entire apparatus shudders when over a thousand pounds of ornery bison struggles to break free of the firm hydraulic grip. Biologists and park rangers work quickly, safely and efficiently to process the massive beast and let it go along on its way. From there, the animals will flow to one of a number of holding pens that will separate the bison destined to remain in the park and those that will journey elsewhere.

"What we're doing is preserving the bison population while also preserving the landscape that supports them," said Eileen Andes, chief of interpretation and public affairs for the park. "So the animals are confined into the park, there's plenty of room for them but they don't have any natural predators."

The purpose of the roundup is to not only help maintain healthy bison population numbers, but also prevent any detrimental impact to the park's resources that might result from an abundance of bison.

"We have a whole bunch of grazing and browsing animals, if their population continues to increase you have overgrazing and resource damage and once that starts to happen it's really really hard to recover so we don't want it to get to that point," Andes said.

Blake McCann, a wildlife biologist overseeing the processing, said that beyond keeping an eye on the health of the herd to ensure that no disease is being sent out of the park, the genetic analysis performed on hair follicles and blood samples collected allows officials to redistribute bison in a smarter way.

"The concern is that when you have isolated populations then over time they tend to lose genetic diversity. It's what we call genetic drift, it's the random loss of diversity over time," McCann said. "What we're trying to understand is genetic variation across herds ... and then ask the question, 'How can we share individuals so that we can spread the wealth of genetic diversity and optimize the diversity of all our herds?'"

The roundup is being conducted with the goal of causing as little stress as is possible to the bison. They are shepherded a pair of helicopters tasked with locating and then leading the bison to where they are wanted, funneling them into a crowding pen to be processed one-by-one. The sheer size of the bison and their lack of domestication makes this uniquely challenging.

"There's danger in any kind of roundup situation," McCann said. "There's no level of tameness to be expected, you have to treat them like they're a wild animal. Which they are."

The work is slated to continue throughout this week, but Andes expected they'll have likely finished rounding up the bison in less time than that. The goal is to try and round up as many individuals in the herd as possible—all outgoing bison will have their blood drawn, but the ones marked to stay will only have a sampling of about 50 blood draws performed.

Last year saw the north unit of the park host a similar roundup, and Andes said they'd be taking next year off.