COMMERCE CITY After more than a century's absence, the wild bison who used to thunder across the prairie in their millions, have returned to Colorado's Front Range in full view of Denver's skyline.Sixteen buffalo, relocated from the National Bison Range in northwestern Montana, were released Saturday morning in an enclosed 1,400-acre section of the former Rocky Mountain Arsenal, near where nerve gas and other chemical weapons were once manufactured.Ironically, the military presence prevented the development that has destroyed considerable prairie habitat."The release went very smoothly. We would say this was a tremendous success," said Matt Kales, spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He said the animals were released in an area that had never been used for the manufacture of weapons.The animals will be watched closely 24 hours a day for awhile to make sure they are accomodating themselves, said Kales.
The 17,000-acre Rocky Mountain Arsenal, once a Superfund site, is being cleaned up and transformed from a chemical weapons and pesticide manufacturing center into a national wildlife refuge.The former arsenal, barely 10 miles from downtown Denver, already is now home to deer, bald eagles and hundreds of other species.The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the parts of the arsenal that have been cleaned up, said bison were once a key part of the short-grass prairie ecosystem. Steve Berendzen, the project leader for national wildlife refuges in the area, said releasing the bison will give Fish and Wildlife the chance to determine the ecological response of the habitat and other wildlife to bison.An environmental group said the federal project will benefit the region's economy and the refuge's ecology."The short grass left by grazing bison is ideal habitat for prairie dog colonies, which in turn provide habitat and prey for rare species such as burrowing owls, hawks and swift foxes," said Jonathan Proctor of Defenders of Wildlife. "Bison also add nutrients to the soil and create wallows which can attract several types of birds."Proctor added that about 250,000 people visit the National Bison Range every year, and Colorado could see the same kind of economic benefits.
Bison once roamed the North American plains by the tens of millions, but were decimated by widespread slaughter after the Civil War as the nation's policy of Manifest Destiny sent settlers west. They dropped to an estimated 1,000 or fewer by the late 1800s. The National Bison Range was created in 1908 to help save the animal from extinction.Fish and Wildlife manages bison on seven refuges nationwide. Kales said the arsenal would be the first bison refuge in a major metro area. The agency might relocate more bison to the site if the first herd settles in and thrives."We are not only giving the bison a chance, but giving the people of Denver a chance to connect with them," Kales said.Later in the day, residents of Lakewood, a suburb west of Denver, literally had that opportunity. A pet buffalo escaped. Police had it corraled for awhile but it escaped and it had to be put down, said Lakewood police animal control officer Michael Brogran. He said the young animal had done minor damage to a couple of cars but no one was hurt.The bison are wild and are considered genetically important because there has been little or no cross breeding with domestic cattle. Their flesh is lower in fat and cholestorol than other meat, and many restaurants offer it.
Kales said the bison were released in the northwest part of the arsenal, an area enclosed by a 7-foot-tall, high-tensile wire fence, buffers and two more fences to keep the animals in.A mature female bison weighs 1,100 pounds and a bull can weigh as much as 2,000 pounds.Kales said Fish and Wildlife, which has a long history of managing bison, doesn't believe the bison will try to get out of the enclosure. But employees will have tranquilizer guns and plans in place in case of any escapes.The Army manufactured chemical weapons at the once-classified arsenal during World War II and the 1950s, including the nerve gas sarin, and Shell Oil manufactured pesticides and other chemicals there until 1982. The facility was designated a Superfund cleanup site, and Congress in 1992 declared that it be turned into a national wildlife refuge.Nearly 80 percent of the site has been removed from the EPA's Superfund list of heavily polluted areas. Cleanup is expected to be completed in 2011.