The Bison are Back in Town

Few images are as iconic of the West as bison roaming across vast prairie vistas.

But, like many national treasures, they were nearly destroyed in the unrestrained zeal of Western settlement. The destruction of bison is mind boggling. According to the National Wildlife Federation’s modest estimate, 30 million bison once roamed freely upon the Great Plains since the last ice age 10,000 years ago. Other sources go as high as 100 million before the arrival of the horse.

By the late 1800s, only 300  were left in the wild when Congress finally took action. Yellowstone National Park became a protected reserve for the nation’s last surviving bison and other wildlife residing there.

Today, conservation has helped bison grow in numbers and the largest herds are in Yellowstone Park (approximately 4,900 bison) and the Henry Mountains and Book Cliffs in Southern Utah (about 500 bison). Following in these reclamation efforts, Colorado State University decided to create a herd of their own. But these weren’t your run-of-the-mill bison.

According to Jennifer Barfield, the project’s lead reproduction scientist, the CSU team wanted to use the pure Yellowstone bloodlines to create their herd, since many other bison bloodlines are tainted by cow DNA. Unfortunately, the bison in Yellowstone are also plagued with brucellosis.

Brucellosis, found in cattle, bison, and elk, is a bacteria that infects herds indefinitely and causes spontaneous abortion and premature births. Scientists at CSU used special chemical baths for sperm cells and embryos to get rid of bacteria that cause brucellosis. Once they had achieved brucellosis-free embryos, they used in vitro fertilization to artificially inseminate females quarantined for more than a decade and had tested free of the disease.

In other words they created genetically pure bison that are not prone to brucellosis (AKA Super-Bison).

A dozen of these Super-Bison were released with much celebration and ceremony on November 1, 2015 into the Soapstone Prairie Area and Red Mountain Open Area north of Fort Collins, Colorado. Scientists, Native Americans and government partners participated in a private religious ceremony to bless the small herd into their new home. With the involvement of leaders from other Native American tribes, the ceremony was led by Mr. Emhoolah, a member of the Kiowa tribe, a Korean War veteran and language consultant to AMC’s railroad drama, Hell on Wheels.

It won’t be easy to spy the new occupants in their native terrain (including the six additional calves that have been been born to the herd), since the bison’s current range is 1,000 acres, but enthusiasts can try to glimpse them in their pasture north of Fort Collins. Directions: From Rawhide Flats Road/CR 15 junction, go about 4.5 miles north on Rawhide Flats Road and look to the west. Stay on the roadway and out of the pasture for your safety and the safety of the bison. In the future, the pasture may be expanded to the north, and at that time, bison would be more visible from the Cheyenne Rim Trail. More information is in the Seeing Bison flyer and map.

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