Video and photos by Ben Ward
In their largest transfer of bison to date, on March 23 Colorado State University, the City of Fort Collins and Larimer County shipped 39 bison from the Laramie Foothills Bison Conservation Herd to three Native American tribes in Oklahoma and Kansas.
The herd was established in 2015 using CSU’s expertise in assisted reproductive technologies – including in vitro fertilization, artificial insemination and embryo transfer – to produce bison that have the same heirloom genetics as those that have lived in and around Yellowstone National Park.
In addition to those reproduction techniques, a team led by Assistant Professor Jennifer Barfield of CSU’s Department of Biomedical Sciences incorporated methods for treating sperm and embryos to get rid of the bacteria that cause brucellosis, an infectious disease that triggers miscarriages and premature births in bison, elk and cattle.
That first herd of 10 genetically valuable and disease-free bison grew to about 120 last year, living on approximately 2,500 fenced acres of shortgrass prairie at Soapstone Prairie Natural Area and Red Mountain Open Space in Northern Colorado.
‘Reconnect with their culture’
Barfield, the scientific lead for the herd, said the landmark shipment of bison to Native peoples is immensely rewarding.
“It feels good when your herd can contribute to larger bison conservation and restoration of bison herds to the landscape,” she said. “It’s great to see them go back to the Native American communities that value them and are really using the rebuilding of the bison herds to heal and reconnect with their culture.”
Matt McCollum, herd coordinator, agreed.
“For me, it’s been a long time coming, because this is what we’ve been working on for over a decade,” he said. “It’s the culmination of a whole lot of work. We hope it’s just the beginning of a lot of potential to do some real good in the bison world.”
Last fall Barfield and McCollum offered the bison to the InterTribal Buffalo Council, which determined which tribal Nations would receive them. Eighteen bison were sent to the Osage Nation in Fairfax, Oklahoma; 11 to the Cherokee Nation in Colcord, Oklahoma; and 10 bison to the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation in Mayetta, Kansas. Most of the bison are only a year or two old, and none are older than 6. Barfield said sending bison in larger groups helps them acclimate to their new homes, especially the young ones.
“We really like sending larger groups together because it allows the bison to keep their family groups together,” Barfield explained. “By sending 18 and 11 and 10 together, they go with familiar animals, which really helps them integrate into new herds.”
Troy Heinert, who is Sicangu Lakota and serves as executive director of the InterTribal Buffalo Council, said Native blessings were performed when the bison left CSU and when they arrived at their destinations. The ITBC sets restrictions on how the bison can be used, he said, explaining that they cannot be slaughtered for commercial purposes for a certain period of time, for example.
“We’re trying to build herds,” Heinert said. “The connection of Indigenous people to buffalo goes back well before this country was formed. It provides that spiritual and cultural connection not just to the buffalo but to our ancestors who survived because of the buffalo.”
Regarding the importance of the CSU herd having Yellowstone genetics, Heinert said that “it’s as close as you can get to the genetics that our ancestors relied on. You can see and feel it in the buffalo, that their connection to Native people is still there. We appreciate CSU and the partnership we’ve created, because this means a lot to the Tribes and people who received these relatives.”
Importance to Native communities
Ty Smith, director of CSU’s Native American Cultural Center, agreed that the collaboration has special meaning to Native people.
“It’s been exciting to witness how this herd has grown and flourished,” he said. “It is especially exciting knowing these bison will be welcomed by the Tribal Nations receiving them. It’s difficult to fully express their importance to Native American communities, culture and sovereignty, and the ecology of tribal lands. Thank you to Jennifer Barfield, Matt McCollum, staff and the InterTribal Buffalo Council for collaborating.”
Tiffani Kelly, assistant director of the NACC, echoed those sentiments.
“Our office has been so excited and honored to be part of the Laramie Foothills Bison Conservation Project for all these years, and being part of this collaboration with Tribal Nations has been especially meaningful,” she said. “I am especially proud of how this project puts into practice meaningful collaborations and partnerships that support Tribal sovereignty, food sovereignty movements in Indigenous communities and Tribal economic development.
Preparations for the trip
The 39 bison chosen for distribution were moved to CSU’s Foothills Campus from Soapstone Prairie and Red Mountain Open Space over winter break so they could be tagged, tested for disease and provided with any necessary vaccinations. There are still about 30 bison living at the Foothills Campus, where CSU’s Animal Reproduction and Biotechnology Laboratory is located.
There have been other shipments of bison over the years, including four in June 2021 to the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge in Adams County and 10 in December 2020 to the Southern Plains Land Trust to establish a new conservation herd at the Heartland Ranch Nature Preserve in southeast Colorado. Six bison from the herd have been sent to American Prairie in Montana, and two were sent the Pueblo of Pojoaque Tribe in northern New Mexico, which manages bison on the Rio Mora National Wildlife Refuge.
The Laramie Foothills Bison Conservation Herd is supported by private fundraising, which has become even more important with recent increases in the cost of feed.
“We give these animals away for free,” Barfield said. “We do not sell them, and donations enable us to do that.”
To donate, visit the herd’s giving page.