The Crestone Eagle, April 2005:

‘Indigenous buffalo’ to change planning & land use for Great Sand Dunes National Park

‘Small bison herd not domestic, study needed’ say biologists


It’s long been known that a small herd of bison roams the 12 square mile Baca Ranch. Ranch cowboys have spotted them grazing in the wetlands of lower Dead Man’s Creek, or in the isolated region near the north end of the Sand Dunes. Sometimes a dozen or so have wandered into the Baca Grande Grants, showing up unexpectedly in someone’s yard. Four years ago, after a grass fire, a fiesty lone bull bison became a regular feature in the Grants until it was chased back onto the ranch.

It was assumed by almost everyone that this herd was made up of escapees from the Zapata -Medano Ranch bison herd. Those that were captured were routinely taken there. Last fall, when two cows and two calves were “reunited” with the Zapata herds it was noticed that they didn’t appear to resemble the domesticated herd. According to a Park Service’s press release, wildlife biologist Kelly Kostner says “they are somewhat smaller in stature and their coat is browner and longer.” The Park service has been attempting to find out where these bison belonged.

Turns out it could be they belong here. According to genetic testing done this winter, these bison do not match any other herds in Colorado, or anywhere else where domestic herd information is on file. According to the Park Service release, the closest “kin” they have are a small wild herd that was preserved in eastern South Dakota.

“The Baca bison herd of approximately 40 animals may be a natural remnant of the once great herd that roamed eastern Colorado” the report says “If so, this could be a significant discovery . . . and this herd should be considered a protected species.” The report speculates that due to the nearly complete isolation of the Baca Ranch since Spanish territorial times, the herd hid out in the Sangre de Cristos, then migrated down into the Baca Ranch.

Michael Blender, of the Department of Fish and Wildlife, has stated at public meetings that the new Dunes National Park would not be open for bison grazing. Part of the Park, the Medano-Zapata Ranch, had been used for bison grazing for many years, but that was going to be discontinued. “This changes everything” said Blender in a telephone interview. “We will have to have a complete review of our proposed use plan. . . we may have to expand the Wilderness Area to accommodate them and limit access to the Park. Buffalo can be very temperamental and don’t mix well with tourists.”

These hardy indigenous buffalo can be seen with strong binoculars and a little imagination just south of the Baca line. Actually, they’re quite mythological, an April Fool’s dream of wilder, freer times when it wasn’t just our imaginations that were wild.