Kit Carson Peak casts an impressive shadow over the San Luis Valley. Named after the famous frontiersman and trapper, both man and mountain witnessed firsthand the disappearance of bison.
Fortunately, more than 140 years after Carson’s death, these massive free-roaming animals, which once grazed across the West by the millions, are again running nearly wild on the Valley’s Zapata Ranch.
Recent years have seen several hundred bison born in the Valley. These new residents, oblivious to the near extinction of their species from overhunting in the 19th century, have quickly learned this is a good place for buffalo to roam. Only a few hours old, the bison learn to walk and then run—something they are soon able to do in 15-mile stretches alongside their mothers—at speeds of more than 30 miles per hour.
The Zapata Ranch bison are now galloping across a landscape very similar to one they shared with Ute Indians centuries ago. This herd is a symbol of community-wide efforts to preserve the natural heritage of this area that were bolstered when the Conservancy purchased the ranch in 1999.
At this time, the Conservancy established a vision for a bison herd that acts and moves in similar ways to those of the past. Now, more than 12 years later, approximately 1,600 bison and their young roam an area adjacent to the national park and wildlife refuge.
While there have been bison in the area for decades, this herd is unique. For starters, it roams freely on 44,000 acres.
Bison are mobile grazers, preferring to eat in one area for a while then move to another location. They eat mostly grass and their grazing habits even create new habitats for birds and animals.
The large, conserved landscape they call home allows them to move and graze in a way that closely emulates the free movement of their ancestors.
Another distinctive feature of this bison herd is the ratio of males to females. While most managed bison herds strongly favor females, the Zapata herd is moving toward the nearly even ratio found in historic herds.
Today, as males engage in the annual “rutting” ritual, the Zapata harkens back to a wilder time where the fight for the opportunity to mate creates a very competitive environment. This sometimes violent display is part of the bison’s natural cycle and is an indicator that this herd is acting like bison of the past.
From Kit Carson Peak, it is easy to see that much has changed in the Valley, especially over the last few hundred years. The presence of bison is also a change, but it’s one that shows the San Luis Valley is maintaining the natural heritage that makes it so special.
The bison are living, grazing proof of this.
You can help! Learn how you can help make a difference for bison in the San Luis Valley.