Home on the range: Bison roam Soapstone once again after 150-year absence

Erik Petrovich

Video by: Madison Sloan.

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For the first time in nearly 150 years, the American bison came thundering back to its original Northern Colorado home Sunday as scientific and cultural efforts lead to its reintroduction to Soapstone Prairie Natural Area on National Bison Day.

Reintroduction of the symbolic animals, directly related to bison from Yellowstone, was led by a coalition of the Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Science, the Warner College of Natural Resources, Native American leaders and Larimer County, which oversees the Red Mountain Open Space adjacent to Soapstone Natural Area.

The Laramie Foothills Bison Conservation Herd, comprised of nine cows and one bull calf, will serve as a seed herd for further conservation efforts across the United States.

Before the bison could come back to the prairie, however, project leaders had to figure out how to cure them of brucellosis, a common and debilitating disease in bison.

Beating Brucellosis

Brucellosis is caused by eating uncooked meat or drinking unpasteurized milk. In humans, it causes muscle pain and undulant fevers that develop over a long period of time, anywhere from a few months to a few years. If left untreated, it can cause death, but because it takes a while to feel the extreme effects, most are able to treat the disease.

It has been almost eradicated throughout the U.S. except for in the Greater Yellowstone area, where it remains a problematic disease for the bison and elk that live in the region.

All members of the Laramie Foothills Bison Conservation Herd are direct relatives of Yellowstone bison, but because brucellosis can spread to cattle and humans, scientists working on the project had to find a way to eradicate the disease from Yellowstone bison embryo and sperm.

Dr. Jennifer Barfield, the project’s scientific leader, said this was achieved by cleaning the brucellosis-causing bacteria off of the embryo and sperm gathered from Yellowstone bison.

“A bison with brucellosis cannot be reintroduced to the landscape — they’re a genetic dead end,” Barfield said. “With the tech we’re using, we’re able to preserve the genetics from those animals and do things like create the Laramie County Bison Conservation Herd.”

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August Parks, son of Fort Collins resident and educator John Parks, studies a diagram of a bison and a skull Sunday morning at CSU's Foothills campus. Bison were released back into their natural habitat Sunday morning.
August Parks, son of Fort Collins resident John Parks, studies a diagram of a bison and a skull Sunday morning at CSU’s Foothills campus. Bison were released back into their natural habitat Sunday morning. (Photo credit: Austin Simpson.)

Cultural Significance

Bison were originally hunted to extinction in the Northern Colorado area in the 1880s by hunters such as the famous folk hero “Buffalo Bill” Cody. Bison was also an important resource for Native American tribes in the area, providing tools, clothing, shelter and food.

Ernest House Jr., executive director for the Colorado Commission on Indian Affairs and a member of the Ute Mountain Ute tribe, said the bison was a symbol of the tribal nations that once lived in Colorado. 

“As Ute people, as one of the 50 different tribes that roam this area, we at one time hunted buffalo,” House said. “One of the biggest things the buffalo continues to be a symbol of is a connection, a messenger from the creator. This animal is revered, it’s praised. It would bring life, and it got us to tomorrow.”

Alvin “Not Afraid” Jr., secretary for the Crow nation, said the bison was always an important animal to the Native American people and was what sustained the Crow people. After his speech, a Crow drum player sang a traditional song to honor the bison being brought back to their native lands.

“A lot of tribes were removed, forcibly, from the state of Colorado,” House said. “By recognizing the history of the different tribal nations, the history of bringing these majestic animals back to this community, it fills a void … to see them come back to this land.”

After celebrating the success of the project, representatives from the Crow nation awarded ceremonial blankets to project leaders, which represented the traditional buffalo robe. In an effort to keep up with the times and to prevent further endangerment of the species, the representatives chose to present blankets instead of the traditional robe.

Where the Buffalo Roam

The ten bison will not be allowed to naturally reproduce for the first five years, Barfield said, in an effort to control the size of the herd. After that, bulls will be allowed into the herd and nature will take its course. When the group becomes too large, Larimer County plans to export some bison to other communities to help with reintroduction efforts.

Some bison may also be sold to specialty slaughterhouses and others may go toward further research.

The Laramie County Bison Conservation Herd now shares thousands of acres of the Soapstone Prairie and Red Mountain Open Space with cattle, deer and the recently reintroduced black-footed ferret.

Mayor Wade Troxell said the project is an example of what can be accomplished if people work together toward a specific goal and praised the people of Fort Collins for supporting the city’s environmental efforts.

“We are an innovation community, and that community is built upon partnership that allows us to do really cutting edge work,” Troxell said. “With all the challenging news we have about the environment these days, this is a positive story of our community making a real difference in conservation.”

Collegian City Beat Reporter Erik Petrovich can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @EAPetrovich.