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In early May, President Obama signed the National Bison Legacy Act into law, designating the wooly bovidae as America’s first national mammal. Numbering in the millions until the late 1800s, bison were key to the evolution of the continent’s grasslands and earliest human inhabitants. But by the end of the 1800s, the population was almost completely wiped out due to commercial hunting.
The animals have since become a quintessential comeback story. Today, approximately 500,000 bison are managed on private land as livestock. Some 30,000 more live in conservation herds, and fewer than 5,000 are unfenced, according to the Smithsonian National Zoological Park. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature currently lists the bison as “Near Threatened,” which means that their numbers remain relatively low. Additionally, the vast majority of herds have cross-bred with cattle over the years, leaving them susceptible to brucellosis, a bacterial infection spread by cows and elk. There are only a handful of genetically pure herds found in the U.S., and one is right here in Colorado.
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Conservation efforts across the Front Range have returned bison to their rightful home on the prairie, with two managed herds that allow visitors to glimpse the creatures in semi-wild habitats. Here is where you can view them now.
Soapstone Prairie and Red Mountain Open Space
About 80 years ago, in the rolling grasslands 25 miles north of Fort Collins, archaeologists found conclusive evidence that Ice Age humans lived alongside modern bison’s eight-foot tall ancestor Bison antiquus. Last November, a team of scientists, conservationists, and local officials re-introduced a small herd—seven adult females, two yearling females, and one bull calf—to Soapstone Prairie and nearby Red Mountain Open Space. (Watch the video of their release below.)
The Laramie Foothills Bison Conservation Herd has forged exciting territory for conservation of the mammals. Colorado State University animal reproductive physiology specialist, Jennifer Barfield, has been working to preserve the cattle-free genetics of Yellowstone National Park’s bison, without passing on the brucellosis infection. To accomplish this, Dr. Barfield’s team “cleans” Yellowstone bison’s semen and embryos of the bacteria, and uses assisted reproductive technologies to transfer embryos to disease-free females. The healthy offspring form the foundation of conservation herds with complete Yellowstone bloodlines, including the Soapstone Prairie bison.
The recent birth of six calves increases the Laramie Foothills Bison Conservation Herd to 16. Roaming 1,000 acres of fenced prairie, the bison add to the space’s suite of wildlife, helping to foster a self-sustaining ecosystem and bring the site full circle.
How to see the bison: During the spring and summer, the road leading into Soapstone Prairie offers the best chance to spy the herd. Hikers along Cheyenne Rim Trail may also catch a glimpse, but the pasture is big and the topography varied, so bring binoculars. Though the animals live partially at Red Mountain, they aren’t yet visible from that open space. Funding-dependent plans to expand the pasture could eventually increase viewing options.
Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge
In 2007, the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge brought bison to the teeming sanctuary just 30 minutes northeast of Denver. Of the 330 species that call the reserve home, bison are some of the most important.
“They really are just one of the very best things you can do to maintain prairie grasses,” says Cindy Souders, supervisory ranger. “They move when they’re grazing so it’s a lighter touch on the land and the action of their hooves creates seed beds.”
Today, the refuge’s genetically diverse herd has more than 80 members with eight calves born this spring. Animals are occasionally and systematically exchanged with other reserves to maintain a healthy mix of DNA. Rocky Mountain Arsenal will nearly double the pasture by the end of 2016 and aims to eventually host 200 bison on 12,000 acres.
How to see the bison: A nine-mile wildlife drive takes visitors right into the bison’s domain, where the creatures can be ogled from the safety of an automobile. Those who prefer to hike should take the Legacy Trail, which offers views from meandering paths that cut through the prairies near the visitor center. Binoculars will let you get up close while keeping a safe distance.
Wildlife Viewing Note: As tame as our new national mammal looks, bison are agile, fleet-footed, and can be unpredictable and aggressive, especially with calves around. For your safety and theirs, give them plenty of space.