A little over a year ago Northern Colorado celebrated the historical re-introduction of the Black-Footed Ferret, once labeled the most endangered mammal in North America. A crowd of outdoor and wildlife enthusiasts gathered to watch biologists and city representatives release these slinky, furry critters from their travel cages and into the prairie dog dens located in Soapstone Prairie Natural Area. My boys and I were there for the release. They still talk about it as it made quite an impression on them, and it stoked the fire of interest in our local wildlife. It was a pretty cool moment to experience.
In the blog post I wrote about the re-introduction, I mentioned some of the details of the wildlife management guide and that bison would soon be on the way to being the next restored species to the area. Well, a year later, here we are getting ready to see genetically pure bison released into Soapstone Prairie released on Sunday.
(The gray wolf is still listed on the management guide. A much more controversial animal since it’s a predator, but not completely out of the realm of possibility of seeing them in Soapstone if they happen to make their way down from Yellowstone, because they have been found on Colorado-Wyoming border before. And if they ever do call Soapstone their home, their dens are set to be protected).
Animals that were once hunted to near extinction and necessary for ecological balance are carefully being brought back through bioscience, and providing research opportunities for scientists at CSU and Denver Zoo to study the impacts of re-introduction on the land – and society. What a time to be alive.
The bison being released into Soapstone Prairie-Red Mountain Open Space are one of the few “genetically pure” bison in the nation. Most other bison have a small percentage of cattle DNA through generations of crossbreeding. The bison in Soapstone Prairie are called the Laramie Foothills Conservation Herd due to their valuable genetic breeding to restore true bison into the area. Their DNA comes from the herds in Yellowstone, another genetically pure herd, although they are often are carriers of brucellosis, a disease that is devastating to cattle (and the economy in the process) that has largely been eradicated in the United States. The bison in the National Park are quarantined within the park boundaries to halt the spread of the disease. The Laramie Foothills Conservation Herd have gone through assisted reproductive technologies that scrub the bull’s semen from disease and with in vitro fertilization are implanted into the cows. From that, we get genetically pure, disease-free bison. This new herd is considered a “seed herd” and will help to propagate their genetics in herds across other areas of possible re-introduction. All of these Soapstone Prairie bison are cows, except for the one calf in there who will grow up to be a bull. He will be separated from the herd when he gets older so that they can continue assisted reproductive technology developed by CSU.
Despite us now having a variation of Yellowstone bison in part of our prairie, we’re not going to actually have any wildlife experiences close to what you can expect from Yellowstone. You will not be hiking near them and won’t be in danger of getting gored (unless you’re a jerk and jump fences). The bison in Soapstone Prairie/Red Mountain Open Space are going to be fenced-off in their own 1,000 acres of pasture to roam. A section of the Cheyenne Rim Trail was re-routed this year to give people a decent viewing spot of the bison pasture that will be expanded. And you may see them from the road driving into Soapstone Prairie. Down the line when they expand the pasture into “phase 2”, which will nearly butt up to the parking lot at the Natural Area, you’ll probably have a better chance of seeing them. However, the bison will still have many acres to roam, and the herd is quite small right now, so don’t count on seeing them every time you’re out there. Either way, bring your binoculars, just in case!