I drove into the south parking lot at Soapstone Prairie Natural Area on May 7 without much hope of seeing many people or bison. A cold mist made this Saturday a poor candidate for regaling people with bison lore and updates about the small herd that now calls this prairie home. But Brian Carroll and Boyce Drummond, the scheduled presenters were already there, huddled in Brian’s black truck. I had just come to hear Boyce’s version of prairie ecology, the segment of the talk I sometimes give as a Fort Collins Master Naturalist. But people arrived: young couples, a dad and boy, and an assortment of mixed gender and ages — 21 in all. One woman joked about getting dibs on the buffalo robe Brian had brought to the table.
And they stayed — for an hour and a half. We clearly showed enthusiasm for the subject, even as we shivered and sometimes bumbled our words through blue lips. Bison can still stir human imagination and respect.
In fact, on May 9 of this year president Obama signed a law designating the bison as the national mammal of the United States. The Huffington Post joked that a law about bison seemed to be the only thing the legislature was capable of passing. Nevertheless, bison did help shape a uniquely North American prairie that once covered 25 percent of the continental U.S. Bison supported Native American populations for at least 13,000 years. Of course, that fact during the 19th century — along with pressures from a growing and industrializing nation — nearly led to the animal’s extinction, but that is part of our culture and history, too. One can hope that embracing both our mistakes and triumphs will be the best way to build a more durable future.
So, although only a few hundred bison roamed the vanishing plains of 1876, a half million now live in this country, at least a few herds in every state. Soapstone bison are unique because they represent genetically pure stock derived from Yellowstone animals that had never bred with cattle. Modern technology in the hands of Jennifer Barfield and her team at Colorado State University allowed the creation of brucellosis-free embryos that could grow into adults that would not transfer that destructive disease to livestock.
Barfield says the herd is doing well and now numbers a dozen animals. “We’ve welcomed four calves to date,” she noted with enthusiasm. They did lose one adult to a mishap in an arroyo. “We’ve been happy to note important behaviors over the winter,” Barfield added, “that suggest the bison are adjusting well to prairie life, such as foraging in the snow by using the sweeping motion of their head. They are no longer dependent on supplemental feed.”
CSU researchers are also keeping track of just how roaming bison may differ from roaming cattle on the prairie in terms of their ecological impact as well as how the reintroduction of bison affects “visitors, ranchers, and farmers, in terms of human health, livelihoods and connections to this landscape.” Associate professor, Liba Pejchar and graduate student, Kate Wilkins have taken the lead in the ecological studies while Rebecca Garvoille, a conservation scientist with the Denver Zoo, is accessing the associated social impact of bison reintroduction to the area. An article published in October of last year, before the herd took up their current residence, spells out the details: (source.colostate.edu)
Today, the bison look like brown specks on their thousand acres of fenced territory, but the hope is that they will be successful enough someday to provide purebred animals for other conservation herds. A thousand acres can support roughly 25 animals. At that point, expansion will be necessary. Daylan Figgs, senior environmental planner with the city of Fort Collins, says, that while plans are not finalized, likely expansion will be to the north of their present location and thus potentially closer to some public hiking trails. The Fort Collins is currently building a small overlook just north of the entrance gate by the south parking lot that will have interpretive signage and a spotting scope installed sometime in June.
No one is discussing long-term management yet. Yellowstone National Park, encompassing 3,468 square miles, compared with Soapstone/Red Mountain’s 53 square miles, supports about 3,700 animals, but parts of the two Montana sub herds have to be culled each year. Bison no longer are free to migrate as they once did, so culling makes ecological sense to prevent overgrazing, even though the practice is not popular with some of the general public, according to Cristina Eisenberg, chief scientist with the environmental group Earth Watch Institute.
Master Naturalists will give more talks this summer about the natural history, evolution and ecology of bison. The next one up is 9 to 11 a.m. on June 14 at the South parking lot at Soapstone. Brian and I will co-host the show and — with any luck — no one will have to covet the bison robe for warmth. Other similar presentations are scheduled in July, August and September. Jennifer Barfield will speak about the technology used to create the bison herd on July 7. Details are available in the city’s Tracks & Trails catalog (available at natural areas or online: http://www.fcgov.com/naturalareas/)
Graduate student Wilkins in the October 2015 article referenced earlier described the open prairie at Soapstone as having “an energy that is rejuvenating and awe-inspiring.” It’s hard to argue against that assessment, even when your teeth are chattering on a cold day in May.