Bison coming to Soapstone Prairie Natural Area

This fall, plains bison will be reintroduced to Soapstone Prairie Natural Area in a partnership between the City of Fort Collins, Colorado State University, U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal Plant Health Inspection Service and Larimer County Natural Resources Department.

The species conservation effort uses assisted reproductive technology to address the key challenge to bison — preserving genetic diversity and mitigating the disease brucellosis.

Bison once roamed the shortgrass prairie, and they are integral to its ecology. Soapstone’s 2009 management plan calls for bison reintroduction. Preparations for the bison include re-routing the first two miles of the Cheyenne Rim Trail, installing a fence for the 880-acre pasture, and fundraising. Learn more at www.fcgov.com/naturalareas/bison.php.

Hunted to near extinction in the 1800s and later bred with cattle accidentally and intentionally, bison herds without some level of cattle ancestry are rare. A large, genetically pure herd can be found at Yellowstone National Park. But those animals are difficult to move outside of the park boundaries because they carry the brucellosis disease, which can be devastating to domestic cattle and can infect people.

Assisted reproductive technology, developed for cattle, might hold the key to re-establishing genetically important bison herds for species conservation. CSU’s Animal Reproduction and Biotechnology Laboratory has implemented processes that allow genetic material from Yellowstone National Park bison to be cleansed of brucellosis and used to create embryos that are then transferred into bison in Fort Collins. The results are genetic descendants of Yellowstone bison that are disease free. These are the bison that will live at Soapstone and Larimer County’s Red Mountain Open Space to found a seed herd – the Laramie Foothills Conservation Herd – for conservation efforts.

The bison pasture will be visible from Soapstone’s entrance road and re-routed Cheyenne Rim Trail. A specially constructed fence will allow wildlife passage while containing the herd, about 12 animals to start. About 800 acres are within Soapstone and 80 acres are within Red Mountain Open Space. The bison are a native grazing animal in the shortgrass prairie and will play an important role in maintaining the ecology. Cattle will continue to be at Soapstone because they achieve conservation targets by mimicking native grazers. The Natural Areas Department has leased grazing rights to the Folsom Grazing Association, which has partnered with the Natural Areas Department on a number of conservation initiatives, including reintroduction of black-footed ferrets and this bison project. Larimer County has a cattle grazing lease on Red Mountain Open Space with a local rancher.

The bison project also offers a unique research opportunity, so the Natural Areas Department is partnering with CSU on studies to better understand the ecological response to bison grazing, and the Denver Zoo to better understand the social values of bison on the conserved landscape.

A ceremony welcoming the bison home will be held Nov. 1 – National Bison Day, and the first day of Native American History Month. Details will be announced in October. In the meantime, updates and information will be posted at www.fcgov.com/naturalareas/bison.php.

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