by Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation
Since I started working at the Fort Collins Museum & Discovery Science Center, I’ve gotten to wear some interesting outfits. I’ve donned lab coats and goggles, snake gaiters and hiking boots, and last week I got to add jumpsuits, waders, and giant yellow slickers to the list. Why dress up like the Gorton’s Fisherman and head out into the pouring rain? I was going to see bison.
The boots were about three sizes too big, but I only fell down once!
Did you know we have bison in Fort Collins? I sure didn’t, until I learned about the National Wildlife Research Center (NWRC).
The NWRC, which is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services, focuses on “resolving problems caused by the interaction of wild animals and society…[and] maintain[ing] the quality of the environments shared with wildlife.” The NWRC works with all sorts of animals, including elk, deer, cows, and pigs, but I was there for the bison. Like this girl:
You can tell she's a girl because her horns curve inwards and taper slowly from the base
And these aren’t just any bison (who, by the way, are North America’s largest land animal). These bison are part of a herd of genetically pure plains bison (no cow genes mixed in) from Yellowstone National Park that are being used to establish new bison herds throughout the west. It’s been estimated that in the United States there used to be 60 million bison throughout the country, and by 1900 that number was down to just over 1,000. Today, there are over 400,000 bison in North America, but only 1-3% of them are estimated to be genetically pure.
The NWRC has been working with bison since 2005, with the specific goal to ensure that bison used to start new herds are free of Brucella, a group of bacteria that cause brucellosis, a disease in both ruminants (bison and cows) and humans. Because of the highly contagious nature of the disease, which causes weight-loss, infertility, decreased milk production and spontaneous late-term abortions in animals, as well as fever, anemia, muscle pain and depression in humans, you don’t want infected animals in a start-up herd.
Bison at the NWRC are brought in as calves and kept in quarantine for 3-4 years to make sure that they aren’t infected with Brucella. Once the animals are certified healthy, they’re sent to their new homes.
Will any of the bison from this project be used to populate Colorado? We’ll have to wait and see. But, for now, it’s nice to know that the ones at the NWRC will be put back onto the landscape they once covered.