No animal better represents the majesty of the American grasslands than the bison. As a keystone species, bison affect the distribution and reproduction of prairie vegetation, aerate soil with their hooves, and create wallows that can sustain ecosystems of their own during wet seasons. While bison originally numbered in the tens of millions, demand for bison robes and materials in the east, combined with the easy transport afforded by the railroad, nearly eradicated the bison from the prairies; there were just 23 wild bison left in the country by 1902. Since then, conservation efforts have helped the bison population rebound to 500,000 animals. However, only around 30,000 are in conservation herds; the rest are livestock. While livestock bison have provided invaluable contributions to the species’ survival, conservation herds present the purest opportunity to return bison to the expanses, and Colorado Prairie Initiative hopes to restore the bison to its native grasslands across Colorado.
Bison are not currently recognized as wildlife in Colorado. This means that bison are not allowed to roam freely across the state in the way that elk, deer, and antelope can. Colorado Prairie Initiative hopes that by working with state agencies, livestock interests, and conservation groups, progress can be made towards allowing bison to take their rightful place as the wild kings of the grasslands. No state in the country has wild bison that are wholly unconfined by fences or arbitrary boundaries. Colorado can, and should, be the first.