The Fort Collins Bison Project educates public on conservation

Kailey Pickering

The 2020 Fort Collins Book Fest brought forward many virtual events. In 2016 the book fest was established by librarians, book lovers, and writers. The inaugural theme in 2016 was Brewin’ Up Books, a tribute to Fort Collins’ love of breweries. Since then, the book fest has not only included writing workshops with coffee and tea but has grown to include talks about impacts in the community. On Sunday, Oct. 11, there was a segment on the Bison Project happening in Fort Collins.

Jennifer Barfield, an assistant professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at Colorado State University, led the event.

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“Our goal with the herd was to create a conservation herd that can be used as a seed herd, which means we could take the animals, allow them to grow here, allow the herd to grow and then lose some of those animals to other conservation herds that may need or want their genetics,” Barfield explained. 

Barfield also explained that it is important to preserve bison with Yellowstone genetics because Yellowstone bison could have brucellosis, a bacterial disease that can easily be passed on to the rest of the herd. 

“What we decided to do was that we wanted to preserve their genetics, and we could do that using assisted reproductive technologies and really essentially creating offspring that had those Yellowstone genetics that didn’t have the disease,” Barfield said.

Barfield also showed the audience slides of bison ovaries, eggs and sperm. One video captured the seven-day span taken for a sperm to fertilize the egg. In this video, Barfield pointed out the clear barrier around the embryo. This is called a protective barrier, which is “really important for our work with the bison because it protects them from the brucellosis, the bacteria that causes brucellosis,” Barfield explained.

“Our goal with the herd was to create a conservation herd that can be used as a seed herd, which means we could take the animals, allow them to grow here, allow the herd to grow and then lose some of those animals to other conservation herds that may need or want their genetics.”
-Jennifer Barfield, assistant professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences

Barfield also described that, in the lab, they wash the embryo to help protect it from the brucellosis bacteria. She showed the audience how the embryo is cleaned through a demonstration. The audience was able to see under Barfield’s microscope where she picked up the embryo in a dropper, exerted it into a drop of water, took it out, and repeated it with another drop. She explained that this is done up to 10 times to clean the embryo.

“Embryo transfer is when you take an embryo from one female and you put it into another female,” Barfield said. By taking one embryo from a female infected with brucellosis, cleaning it, and putting it into a female without brucellosis, Barfield said that it helps the health of the fetus.

The breeding season for Bison is in July, August and September, according to Barfield. Out of the breeding season, Barfield said the embryos are put into suspended animation. There are two ways this can be approached: by freezing the eggs or by vitrification. 

Barfield expressed that eggs can be frozen by being placed in a straw that is placed in a machine that freezes the eggs very slowly, and the eggs will then be stored in liquid nitrogen. The other process, vitrification, varies from freezing as, Barfield explained, the solution used turns the embryo and everything around it into glass.  

Barfield gave a demonstration of this process as well. In her demonstration, Barfield took the embryo, used a small amount of liquid to put the embryo on a vitrification device called a Cryotop. From there, Barfield placed the Cryotop into liquid nitrogen, and as the embryo entered the liquid on the Cryotop, a sizzle was emitted. Barfield explained the sizzle was “really the embryo and all of the fluid around it turning to glass. So liquid nitrogen is incredibly cold. It’s 196 degrees below zero in Celsius.”

Barfield put the lid on the Cryotop and the process was finished. Barfield explained that through vitrification, the embryos could be preserved from hundreds to, potentially, thousands of years. The next step is to store the embryos in liquid nitrogen tanks. To take the embryos out of their animated suspension, Barfield said that there are certain solutions the embryo is put through to ease it out gradually.

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a bison from far away
A bison seen against the foothills at Soapstone Prairie Oct. 3. This herd of bison is descended from bison from Yellowstone and are the results of conservation efforts between many partners, including Colorado State University and the City of Fort Collins. (Ryan Schmidt | The Collegian)

Barfield also showed an embryo transfer gun. “It’s called a gun, but it is really just like a very, very long pipette,” Barfield said. She explained that the embryo is put into a straw that is placed in the gun. The female bison is given an epidural so she’s comfortable, and the gun places the embryo in her uterus, where Barfield and her team hope for a pregnancy.  

According to Barfield, in the herd, different bison have different tags.

“You’ll see that some of their tags say AI, and then a number,” Barfield said. “And that stands for artificial insemination, so those were animals that we did the insemination of the female to produce that animal. And then there are others that say art, and that means that that was an embryo. That female — we have some females out there that were embryo transfer females — she was created by us moving the embryo from one female to another.”

After testing the calves and confirming their health, the bison are sent into the herd. Barfield said that some bison have been taken to other places across the country. Some have been taken to other conservation herds to breed with more bison, some have been given to Native American tribes, and one was born at the Bronx Zoo. 

In November, the Bison project will celebrate its fifth year of reproducing more bison. Barfield explained that there will be celebrations put on by those working with the bison to get the community involved. The Laramie Foothills Bison Herd is located in Fort Collins and can be visited with proper social distancing. Barfield and her team strive to continue their success in impacting the bison. 

Kailey Pickering can be reached at entertainment@collegian.com or on Twitter @PickeringKailey.