PAWHUSKA, Okla. (KFOR) – A group of bison from New York are now in Oklahoma to help diversify a herd in Pawhuska.

Officials say three male and three female American bison have been transferred to the Osage Nation in Pawhuska from the Bronx Zoo.

This week, those bison joined the nearly 200 bison that make up the herd on their 43,000-acre ranch.

“The return of the bison holds great significance to Osage people. Bison are not only a mark of our past; they are a symbol of our future. With the great success of our surface reservation growth through land purchases, we now have a home for bison to continue their resurgence. On behalf of the Osage Nation, I would like to express gratitude to the Bronx Zoo for its conservation efforts and programs that contribute to the growth and diversification of our herd,” said Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear of the Osage Nation.

Bison from Bronx Zoo to Oklahoma
Credit: Julie Larsen Maher, Bronx Zoo

Organizers say the move is a significant step in a new partnership between the Bronx Zoo and the Osage Nation.

“The transfer of Bronx Zoo bison to the Osage Nation is a win-win,” said Dr. Patrick Thomas, the Bronx Zoo’s Associate Director and General Curator, who initiated and oversaw the zoo’s role in the project. “The Osage again have a species of cultural importance grazing on their ancestral land; the zoo’s bison get to play an integral role in a significant conservation program; and the tallgrass prairie ecosystem benefits by having bison on it, thereby shaping the composition of the vegetation and animal communities.”

For more than 10 years, the Bronx Zoo has been working to establish a bison herd in order to move them to areas they once occupied in the American West.

Zoo leaders attempted embryo transfers, but saw limited success.

The program started to grow after the zoo received bison from the Sioux and Assiniboine tribes in Montana. Those animals were of the Yellowstone bloodline, one of the few remaining herds of pure bison.

When they arrived at the zoo, they were selectively bred to maximize genetic diversity in the population.

Credit: Julie Larsen Maher, Bronx Zoo

Bison populations in North America once numbered in the tens-of-millions. Over much of the 1800s, they were relentlessly hunted.

In less than 100 years, the species was driven to the brink of extinction, with fewer than 1,000 animals remaining in the wild and in captive herds.

Today, there are about 500,000 bison in the wild and on ranches across North America.

However, most of these bison carry trace amounts of domestic cattle genes from a time when ranchers attempted to breed bison with cattle to create larger beef cattle.

Only about 11,000 of the 500,000 animals alive today are thought to be genetically pure bison with no evidence of cattle genes. The majority of these are bison that originated from Yellowstone National Park.