From The Colorado Springs Gazette (Seth Boster) via The Tri-Lakes Tribune:
Sometimes when Jennifer Barfield is having a bad day, she’ll drive north of her Colorado State University lab.
“I’ll end up in a pasture,” she said — a pasture of bison that she helped bring here to this rolling, open canvas near the Wyoming border.
Barfield, an assistant professor specializing in conservation biology and reproductive physiology, will stand at a distance and watch some of the 100 or so woolly members of this one-of-a-kind group in Colorado. Occasionally the bison come close, so close she can listen to them breathe and chew grass.
“It’s no secret I’m pretty attached to the animals we have in our herd,” Barfield said. “So sometimes when challenges arise or things are difficult … it helps me just to go out and spend some time with them. They’re very calm and peaceful and reassuring.
“And, yeah, I really feel like I draw a lot of my motivation and strength from reminding myself of what we’ve done, and that it’s a good thing, and being out there with the animals just really confirms that for me.”
A multigovernment collaboration based in Fort Collins calls this a conservation herd, genetic flag-bearers of the original, once-proud bison that roamed the plains in the millions before being hunted to near extinction during white man’s westward expansion. Descendants of those indigenous bison have been largely confined to Yellowstone National Park. They reportedly occupy less than 1% of their historic range.
But with assisted reproductive technologies steered by Barfield, a growing number of bison with those heirloom genes have set hoof again in Colorado and beyond — pure relatives, without cattle inbreeding.
Five years ago, on the contiguous lands of Soapstone Prairie Natural Area and Red Mountain Open Space, the conservation herd began with a male calf and nine adult females, some of which were the result of artificial pregnancies. Sperm and eggs from Yellowstone bison were cleaned by Barfield and her team preceding embryo transfer. This was to ensure the removal of the pathogen causing brucellosis, the disease notoriously plaguing that herd…
The sperm and egg cleaning treatment was built upon decades of technological advancements at Colorado State. Assisted reproduction development was mostly for the sake of livestock; techniques are routine in the beef and dairy industries, similar to the in vitro fertilization process people know.
It just so happened that land managers of Soapstone and Red Mountain had been looking for native herbivores. Grazing, managers knew, was important to soil and vegetation and overall ecological balance — balance that prevailed before these lands were bison kill sites in the 1800s, their bones left behind.
But there was an even greater mission hatched here five years ago, said Meegan Flenniken, with Larimer County’s Natural Resources Department.
“Our ultimate goal was really to create a herd that could act as a seed herd, to help establish bison with these heritage genetics elsewhere,” she said…
The lineage late last year expanded to a nature preserve in southeastern Colorado, where 10 bison of the conservation herd were transplanted. In the coming months, a bigger group is due for protected prairie in Montana.