One year later: Bison herd gains hoof-hold and boosts conservation nationwide

The seed herd of 10 American bison released one year ago on northern Colorado public lands has expanded to 16 healthy animals, and the project has contributed valuable heirloom genetics to two other bison conservation efforts – with more growth ahead.

The Laramie Foothills Bison Conservation Herd galloped onto 1,000 acres at Soapstone Prairie Natural Area and Red Mountain Open Space on Nov. 1, 2015.

Since then, the project that began as a simple concept – returning an iconic species to its native landscape – is producing profound conservation and cultural rewards, both in northern Colorado and across the country.

“To see such a tremendous animal, an American icon, have its hooves touch the ground in this area again, is just beautiful,” said Ty Smith, director of the Colorado State University Native American Cultural Center.

Project partners celebrated the herd’s significance, discussed highlights from the past year, and described plans for the years ahead during a gathering in Fort Collins on Nov. 1 to kick off Native American Heritage Month.

The Laramie Foothills Bison Conservation Herd, a genetically pure, Brucella abortus-free bison herd is released in the City of Fort Collins Soapstone Prairie Natural Area and Larimer County Red Mountain Open Space, November 1, 2015, National Bison Day.
The Laramie Foothills Bison Conservation Herd was introduced on Nov. 1, 2015. William A. Cotton/CSU Photography

The Laramie Foothills Bison Conservation Herd is unique for representing the wellspring of heritage genetics found in and around Yellowstone National Park. With help from a scientific workaround, collectively known as assisted reproductive technologies, the herd is free from brucellosis, a worrisome infectious disease that plagues bison in the Greater Yellowstone Area and typically prevents the animals and their diverse genetics from moving beyond those geographic confines.

“I have a great amount of pride for everything we’ve accomplished as a team,” said Jennifer Barfield, a reproductive physiologist with the CSU Animal Reproduction and Biotechnology Laboratory. “This is exactly what we wanted to happen, and hopefully it will continue on a larger scale.”

Bison reintroduction was conceived during planning for public lands managed by the City of Fort Collins and Larimer County about 25 miles north of Fort Collins. The U.S. Department of Agriculture joined the effort to rehome Yellowstone bison held in quarantine on CSU’s Foothills Campus.

Barfield and her laboratory team, representing the fourth core partner agency, joined the project to contribute reproductive techniques that could propagate original bison genetics without disease. These include cleansing infected sperm cells and embryos in the laboratory, followed by in vitro fertilization or embryo transfer to produce healthy bison calves born naturally on the prairie.

A home where the bison roam

To the delight of collaborators, the bison have adapted well to their home at Soapstone Prairie Natural Area and Red Mountain Open Space – proved when six fuzzy bison calves were born unassisted under the prairie stars last spring and early summer. The newborns, three males and three females, arrived just as the American bison was declared national mammal of the United States in May 2015.

The Laramie Foothill Bison Conservation Herd at Soapstone Prarie Open Space. May 10, 2016
Six bison calves were born at Soapstone Prairie Natural Area and Red Mountain Open Space in spring 2016 – with more on the way. John Eisele/CSU Photography

“The success of the calves, that was really a milestone that was fantastic to see,” said Daylan Figgs, senior environmental planner for City of Fort Collins Natural Areas.

“On the surface, this was a very simple idea,” continued Figgs, who helped develop plans for bison reintroduction in northern Colorado. “What has transpired, and what has become the strength of this project, is the partnership that came together for the conservation of a species, for the prairie ecology, and for research.”

It has been rewarding to see bison regain a foothold after an absence of 150 years, said Meegan Flenniken, resource program manager for the Larimer County Department of Natural Resources.

“It’s becoming a proven project,” said Flenniken, another originator. “We really feel a sense of pride to see that happen.”

Milestones during the first year

Partners in the Laramie Foothills Bison Conservation Herd have marked several key steps during the past year:

  • Six calves were born in the bison pasture at Soapstone Prairie Natural Area and Red Mountain Open Space.
  • Disease-free bison embryos with complete Yellowstone genetics were transferred into a total of 10 surrogate mothers in bison conservation projects overseen by the Minnesota Zoo and the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Bronx Zoo.
  • Embryos likewise were transferred into 10 bison cows overseen by the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service on the CSU Foothills Campus.
  • A disease-free bison bull, originally from Yellowstone and held in quarantine by USDA-APHIS Veterinary Services, joined the northern Colorado herd in spring 2016 to father as many as eight calves, whose birth is expected in spring 2017. The bull will likely move on to a conservation herd at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in Illinois.
  • Bison conservationists with the American Prairie Reserve in Bozeman, Mont., are expected to visit this fall to discuss potential collaborations.
  • A research project involving CSU’s Warner College of Natural Resources and Denver Zoo is assessing ecological and cultural impacts of the Laramie Foothills Bison Conservation Herd.

“It’s a dream in progress,” Matt McCollum, a wildlife biologist with USDA-APHIS Veterinary Services, said of the bison project. “We’ve been working on this for years, and this is the first year we’ve had hooves on the ground, so it’s very cool.”

Help the herd!

The Laramie Foothills Bison Conservation Herd is funded by partner agencies and private giving. Contributions help pay for fencing, animal-handling facilities, supplies, veterinary are, and laboratory staff. To donate, visit our Giving website.

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