Natural birth: Two calves born to NoCo conservation herd

bison herd Soapstone May 2016
Photo: John Eisele/Colorado State University Photography

It’s as if they timed it: Two wooly, red-brown dots appeared on the prairie – there, between the adults – the very week the American bison became our national mammal.

Two cows in the Laramie Foothills Bison Conservation Herd calved May 6 and May 10 on sweeping public grasslands north of Fort Collins. Birth of the calves coincided with President Obama’s signing on May 9 of the National Bison Legacy Act, which makes the American bison the official national mammal of the United States.

The calves are the first American bison born in some 150 years on this public land, where the species once grazed by the millions before it was hunted nearly to extinction during western expansion. More specifically, they are the first bison calves born in the natural prairie setting since northern Colorado’s conservation herd was released at Soapstone Prairie Natural Area and Red Mountain Open Space on Nov. 1, 2015.

No one observed the births, which raised the herd’s headcount to 12. And, in a reflection of a hands-off management philosophy, no one was close enough during the newborns’ first week to determine their sex. Just like it happens in the wild.bison calf mom Soapstone May 2016

“These babies are new life, and a new part of the herd that will be born here and will make this their home range. It’s exciting to see,” said Jennifer Barfield, a Colorado State University reproduction physiologist and the conservation project’s scientific leader. “These births are one of those hallmarks that tell us the bison are settling in well, and they’ll make a home here.”

Dana Clashin, a member of the Navajo Nation and a CSU freshman studying natural resources management, discovered the first calf during a daily morning check on the herd and its water supply. At first, she wasn’t sure what she was seeing.

“I saw something really small, and I was like, ‘What is that?’ I wasn’t even sure we were expecting babies. It must have just been born because it was still wet and the mom was standing over it, licking it. I couldn’t believe the calf had just come out of the mother’s body,” Clashin said. “It was just amazing – and the calf is so adorable.”

A few days later, Barfield observed the fuzzy newborns and their mothers while sitting in an SUV parked at a distance. The calves nestled into prairie grass in bright spring sunshine, unfazed by whipping winds as their mothers grazed hungrily nearby, occasionally stopping to nuzzle or nurse the calves.

bison calf nuzzled by mom Soapstone May 2016“Awww, look at that,” Barfield cooed, pointing out a car window and sharing her delight with James Gillis, a graduate student studying reproduction science. “That one’s nursing quite a bit. That’s great.”

The new calves are the product of natural breeding, fathered by genetically pure American bison owned by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The bulls are from the Greater Yellowstone Area.

As is true of all animals in the Laramie Foothills Bison Conservation Herd, the sires repeatedly tested free from the infectious disease brucellosis, a vexing problem in and around Yellowstone. Brucellosis is a potentially devastating disease that can infect bison, cattle, elk and people; it has been a significant hurdle to bison conservation efforts, the reason American bison with complete, heritage genetics are rarely removed from Yellowstone and introduced elsewhere.

The Laramie Foothills Bison Conservation Herd is unique in its use of assisted reproductive technologies as a workaround for infectious disease; indeed, the northern Colorado project is the first known to employ these special fertility techniques, in conjunction with standard quarantines and disease testing, to help conserve an indigenous Western species.

bison calf and mom on Soapstone Prairie Natural AreaAssisted reproductive technologies – provided by scientists with CSU’s Animal Reproduction and Biotechnology Laboratory – were pioneered for cattle and include in vitro fertilization, artificial insemination, embryo transfer, and laboratory cleansing of sperm and embryos. Yes, these are some of the same techniques used to produce successful pregnancies for people with fertility concerns.

But for partners in the bison conservation project, science took a back seat this week to giddiness over the arrival of two calves on the prairie.

“We’re excited these newborn bison entered the world and drew their first breaths on the grasslands, their ancestral home,” said Meegan Flenniken, resource program manager for Larimer County Department of Natural Resources. The bison pasture covers part of Red Mountain Open Space, which is managed by the county.

“We’re looking forward to supporting the calves and the herd, along with our partners, as they continue to grow and thrive on conserved lands in Larimer County,” Flenniken said.

Project partners

The Laramie Foothills Bison Conservation Herd re-establishes the great grazer of the plains to a part of its native grounds in northern Colorado. The project is part of a broad effort to restore the shortgrass prairie ecosystem and to create a connected corridor of conserved lands from the mountains to the plains. Partners include:

  • City of Fort Collins Natural Areas
  • Larimer County Natural Resources
  • CSU Animal Reproduction and Biotechnology Laboratory
  • USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service

Looking ahead

  • As many as five bison calves could be born this spring and early summer, including the two that already have arrived.
  • In years ahead, the herd will grow to about 25 animals on the 1,000-acre fenced pasture at Soapstone Prairie Natural Area and Red Mountain Open Space. This target is based on the number of animals that may be supported with natural forage while maintaining optimal prairie health. The pasture and the herd could ultimately double in size.
  • The herd’s number will fluctuate as calves are born, animals die, new bison are introduced for genetic diversity, and others are sent to different bison conservation herds.

Summertime bison talks

  • 7 p.m. July 7 – Jennifer Barfield, of CSU’s Animal Reproduction and Biotechnology Laboratory, will discuss the reproductive techniques used to establish the Laramie Foothills Bison Conservation Herd. Hosted by City of Fort Collins Natural Areas in the Community Room, 215 N. Mason St. Free; for more information and to register, click the city’s Natural Areas website.
  • Bison viewing, educational talks and guided walks, hosted by City of Fort Collins Natural Areas at Soapstone Prairie Natural Area – 9 a.m. June 14; 4 p.m. July 22; 9 a.m. Aug. 20; and 4 p.m. Sept. 7. Free; for more information and to register, visit the city’s Natural Areas website.

Support the herd

Donations help pay for fencing, animal-handling facilities, supplies, and veterinary and laboratory staff to care for the Laramie Foothills Bison Conservation Herd. Contribute donations online or by calling (970) 491-2969.

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Click photos in story to enlarge. Credit John Eisele/ Colorado State University Photography.

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