SCIENCE & CEREMONY: THE RETURN OF BISON TO NORTHERN COLORADO GRASSLANDS

SCIENCE & CEREMONY: THE RETURN OF BISON TO NORTHERN COLORADO GRASSLANDS

by Coleman Cornelius

MODERN SCIENCE AND ANCIENT RITUAL combined last fall as a herd of 10 American bison thundered onto the northern Colorado prairie, a major step in restoring the nation’s largest iconic land mammal to this part of its historic range.

It was the first time in nearly 150 years that bison with pure heirloom genetics — from in and around Yellowstone National Park — had galloped across grasslands north of Fort Collins, and reproduction scientists at Colorado State were central to the return.

Before the release, a spiritual leader from the Crow Nation of Montana offered a prayer in his native Apsaalooké language, as the golden eagle feathers in his headdress waved in the prairie wind. Other Native American guests drummed, their voices rising in a traditional Pawnee song to welcome the bison.

Release of the Laramie Foothills Bison Conservation Herd was an achievement for conservationists, who are working to restore several indigenous species on public lands managed by Larimer County and the city of Fort Collins. The herd lives on 1,000 acres at Red Mountain Open Space and Soapstone Prairie Natural Area, about 25 miles north of Fort Collins.

The bison reintroduction is notable for both its environmental and its cultural value: The herd treads earth that some 10,000 years ago was home to giant bison and Ice Age humans, who relied on the Pleistocene mammals for meat, hides, and materials for fuel and tools — much as Plains tribes relied on American bison into the mid-1800s, when westward expansion threatened Native Americans and bison alike.

“Bringing these majestic animals back fills a void for a lot of Native American cultures,” Ernest House Jr., executive director for the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs House, told a crowd before the herd’s release. “This animal is revered, and it’s praised. It would bring life, and it got us to tomorrow.”
Then there’s the science. Unlike some other herds, the Laramie Foothills Bison Conservation Herd descends directly from heritage bison in Yellowstone National Park. This is striking because bison in the Greater Yellowstone Area often are afflicted with an infectious disease called brucellosis, which can also harm elk, cattle, and people. Brucellosis has been a barrier to moving American bison directly from Yellowstone.

Modern fertility science, supplied by CSU’s Animal Reproduction and Biotechnology Laboratory, is enabling the conservation project.

Jennifer Barfield, an assistant professor and the project’s lead reproduction scientist, recalled a meeting over coffee, when she and her partners realized that assisted reproductive technologies — pioneered for cattle — could be applied to bison as a workaround for infectious disease. The northern Colorado project marks the first time assisted reproductive technologies have been used to accomplish wildlife conservation.

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