Purebred bison back to Missouri after almost two centuries

Monday, June 11, 2012 | 7:48 p.m. CDT; updated 11:25 p.m. CDT, Monday, June 11, 2012

COLUMBIA — After more than a 160-year hiatus, purebred bison are returning to Missouri.

The first purebred baby bison since the 1840s was born May 2 at the Nature Conservancy's Dunn Ranch Prairie, said Amy Welch, the operations and marketing coordinator for the Nature Conservancy.

Seven other baby bison have since been born at the Hatfield ranch in northwest Missouri.

The birth of these eight bison came as a result of the reintroduction of purebred bison to the state in October 2011.  The Nature Conservancy resettled 36 purebred bison from preserves in South Dakota and Iowa.

Although there are more than 400,000 bison in the U.S., most of these have been crossbred with cattle, Welch said. She said the herd at Dunn Ranch is one of only eight purebred bison herds in the country.

Steven Buback, a natural history biologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation, said that although he knows of one other bison herd in Missouri, he believes the Dunn Ranch bison are the first purebred herd the state has seen in almost two centuries.

The purebred bison were reintroduced to reclaim Missouri's natural heritage, Welsh said.

"They were hunted out by the European settlers. The last one in Missouri was seen in Camden County in the 1840s," said Doug Ladd, the director of conservation science for the Nature Conservancy in Missouri.

In the early 1900s, many bison were interbred with cattle to help save the dwindling species from extinction, Ladd said. 

And the Nature Conservancy hopes that the reintroduction of purebred bison to the state won't just serve as a reminder Missouri's cultural history. It could also benefit the ecosystem, Ladd said.

"One-third of Missouri used to be prairie, but we only have 1 percent of the original land," Ladd said. "The habitat is gone."

Buback said the Department of Conservation is working with the Nature Conservancy to restore the tallgrass prairie.

"We are trying to replicate the historical pattern on a small scale," Buback said.

The Dunn Ranch staff burns different portions of the prairie at different times.

The bison will focus on the grasses at the particular location and avoid areas that have not been recently burned, where the grasses will be able to grow taller, Ladd said.

This process is important for providing diverse habitats for grassland birds, Ladd said.

"This will create open space for birds. It will provide places for them to raise young," Buback said.

In addition, the bison's behavior patterns will help physically change the landscape and help maintain a biologically-rich prairie, Welch said.

"They wallow the ground, causing some disturbance, or just walk around," Welch said. "The depression will help the seeds of different species to grow."

Currently, the Dunn Ranch Prairie has a 1,200-acre enclosed area for the bison, which is likely to grow in the future, Ladd said.

"It would take more years to see whether it will have a big impact on the ecosystem of the prairie," Buback said.

Supervising editor is Ted Hart.

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Harold Sutton June 12, 2012 | 7:39 a.m.

We have to keep trying to get it right!

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