2012

Denver bison herd evolving back to ancestry, gaining value

By Denver Post

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(RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post)

Denver's herd of bison at Genesee Park off Interstate 70 draws crowds curious about the creatures that used to roam in the tens of millions. These bison are unusual for not showing cattle traits.

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Denver's expanding municipal herd of bison, bred from ancestors domesticated after commingling with cattle, shows signs of reverting to its roots.

The evidence from DNA tests, wild appearance and behavior delights conservationists. Some now seek a federal "endangered" designation to bolster the nation's purest bison.

Both Denver bulls who lead the herd at the Interstate 70 Genesee Park overlook proved free of cattle genetic markers in testing begun last year.

Bison calves increasingly are born with prominent humps on their backs, distinct from flat- backed cattle. About 30 are expected this spring.

When coyotes approach, Denver's bison band closer together, bulls patrolling.

If one bison bleeds from scraping fences or trees, the whole herd rolls in its blood "so the predator doesn't know which one to chase," said Matt Brown, Denver Mountain Parks operations supervisor, who has worked with the herd for 12 years.

"The point is, as long as they've been captive, they still revert to their wild herd instincts," Brown said.

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Denver is one of a few cities and counties that own bison. San Francisco owns eight head in a paddock at Golden Gate Park. There are also herds in county parks near Pittsburgh and Columbus, Ohio.

City leaders created it around 1914, obtaining bison from Yellowstone National Park.

Bison at that point had been hunted — some settlers shot them from trains — to near extinction. Ranchers who rescued survivors tried to boost bison numbers through interbreeding with cattle.

Today, wild bison number around 19,820 nationwide, according to the Denver-based National Bison Association. An estimated 198,000 head are raised on ranches for hides and meat. Most of those carry cattle traits.

"This Denver herd may be one of the pure herds," Grandin said. "If the test results come back showing they are 100 percent pure, then it is a valuable herd, definitely worth keeping."

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