Wild is back: A short history of the wild bison coming to a natural area near you

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Wild things. They frighten, amaze, inspire, excite, humble and move us. They quicken our pulses and seem to make us vibrate at some more primitive frequency. Dogs look at us with friendship and appeasement while a wolf sizes us up as a potential meal. Cows regard us with a dull stare while a wild bison prepares to flee or fight. Now that wild bison will share space with us at Soapstone Natural Area in Northern Colorado as of Nov. 1 this year, it’s instructive to look at the history of bison in North America, because we humans have shared and shaped that history for at least 12,000 years.

The advance and retreat of glaciers helped mold a unique habitat on this continent over hundreds of thousands of years — a special kind of grassy, cold Serengeti. Over the past 650,000 years seven ice ages have come and gone, punctuated by mild times like we have now. During that time, the ice has lingered in mountain retreats and permafrost, occasionally preserving animals in exquisite, freezer-burned detail. In 1979, for example, Dale Guthrie, then with the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, found “Blue Babe,” the well-preserved remains of Bison priscus, or B. priscus, the steppe bison that originally migrated from Europe over a hundred thousand years ago. (The animal was covered with crystals of blue vivianite, reminding Guthrie of Paul Bunyan’s azure-hued ox.)

B. priscus lived 36,000 years ago, killed by an American lion that left a tooth and other evidence behind in the carcass. Steppe bison bulked about 50 percent bigger than modern bison with horns that stuck out rather than curving sharply upward. Guthrie described the animal as looking like a dark bay horse — rich, dark brown with black points on the face, legs and tail, and none of the foreleg “pantaloons” typical of modern bison.

B. priscus shared his Ice Age world with 13 species of predator, including gray wolves, dire wolves, short-faced bears, grizzly and black bears, saber-tooth and simitar cats, lions, jaguars, cheetahs, pumas, and, near the end of its existence, humans. According to James A. Bailey, former professor of wildlife biology at Colorado State University for 20 years and author of “American Plains Bison: Rewilding an Icon,” “these large and powerful predators favored evolution of large, social bison with large, forward – or outward – curving horns as defensive weapons.”

But something happened at the end of our last or Wisconsin Ice Age. Seven of the 13 major predator species became extinct, perhaps the result of a warming world and the debut and spread on this continent of humans. Bison species began shrinking in size.

Tim Flannery, author of “The Eternal Frontier, an Ecological History of North America and Its People,” contends that “the bison is a human artifact, for it was shaped by Indians and its distribution determined by them.”

Native Americans used fire to clear vast stretches of land that opened up habitat for bison and they hunted with spears and arrows from a distance that favored smaller size and speed. “Hunting pressure can cause dwarfing,” Flannery said, “when it is intense and focused on the largest individuals, resulting in selection for early-maturing dwarfs.”

The distinctive fluted Folsom point imbedded in the vertebra of an extinct B. antiquus discovered by graduate student Loren Eiseley in 1935 at the Lindenmeier site within Soapstone Natural Area captures one moment of the history of the Folsom culture in Northern Colorado. If Flannery is correct, that thousand-year-long, bison-hunting culture helped create the wild bison that, at the time of first European discovery, occupied 40 of the contiguous 48 United States.

Modern bison ranges quickly shrank during the 18th and 19th centuries as humans hunted, farmed and built their way across North America. Bailey notes that “in the Great Plains, the Native American nomadic culture based almost entirely on bison hunting and dependent on horses was a short-term phenomenon lasting about 150 years.”

Major destruction of bison populations began in 1810 with intense trade in hides. Robe trade peaked in the 1840s and by the 1850s and 60s the resource was largely “hunted out.” Later, hide hunting, mostly used to make leather belts for industrial machinery, clinched the bison’s demise within a 15-year span.

Animals that once covered the landscape like a blanket and played a key ecological role in maintaining prairie habitat had frayed into a few ragged threads by the end of the 19th century. Some bison were crossed with domestic cattle, diluting the original gene pool. Yellowstone became the one oasis harboring truly wild bison, but those bison suffered from brucellosis, a disease that can also decimate cattle populations. Jennifer Barfield and her team at Colorado State University succeeded in removing the disease organism from male bison semen to create disease-free embryos that could be carried by surrogate mothers. The results of those efforts over several years have created the small herd at Soapstone.

So, wild is back. We have a new chance to form a mutually beneficial pact with a beast that we both shaped and nearly destroyed. Families can enjoy a welcome home ceremony for the bison at 10 a.m. on Nov. 1 at the National Wildlife Research Center, 4101 LaPorte Ave., CSU Foothills campus. Find more details about this and related events at fcgov.com/naturalareas/bison.php.

Bailey says, “Aside from commercial bison producers, bison are most valuable to the public as wild animals. Wild bison have historical, recreational, aesthetic, economic, ecologic, social and cultural values that depend upon their most unique characteristic — wildness.”

Perhaps some of that wildness will soon bring a delicious shiver to your day when you hike the Cheyenne Rim Trail in Soapstone & Red Mountain Natural Areas.

Picture Caption:
The author’s sketch of “Blue Babe,” the 36,000-year-old steppe bison found in Alaska in 1979. An even more complete specimen named “Bison Bob” was found in 2013.

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