Bison are big animals, the bulls growing to over 2,000 pounds. They roll around on the ground from time to time in a kind of dustbath, kicking up sand that helps cool them off in the hot summer sun while making their skin less interesting to insects. When bison roll around on the dusty ground, their weight creates depressions in the earth, typically six to ten feet across and as much as five or six inches deep. These depressions, called bison wallows, then collect water during a storm, affecting the way water interacts with the soil. FLC students Bennett and Lomaomvaya are finding out how by measuring the way water soaks into the soil in a bison wallow, as well as the amount of carbon and nitrogen captured in that soil. They will then compare that data with an adjacent plot just outside of the wallow.
By reintroducing bison to this landscape, and allowing grasses to grow back between grazing seasons, Gleason Bison Ranch owner and operator Sarah Gleason aims to weave food production and land conservation together in a single effort, rather than disparate or even competing efforts. She looks at the land as a whole system, monitoring and supporting life and growth from soil bacteria and microinvertebrates, to the 70 species of birds on the Audubon-certified ranch. Her approach not only demonstrates how to make ranching easier, more productive, and more profitable, but also reflects one way to reestablish a sustainable food system in the Four Corners.
Gleason hasn’t always been a rancher, and her transition into ranch life hasn’t always been easy, but her sincere love of the natural world and her deep appreciation for the power of relationships have made for a strong start. After working in marketing and public relations for ten years, Gleason decided she wanted to work outside. She began talking with her husband, Mike, about ranching when he asked, “What about bison?”
In 2012, Gleason joined the National Bison Association and began visiting ranches and learning about the animals. In 2015, she started working with the Savory Institute, where she learned about regenerative agriculture and holistic planned grazing, an approach to ranching that is adaptive in nature, and relies on continuous experimentation and monitoring. One year later, she bought her first 15 bison cows (female bison, not to be confused with cattle). In 2020, Gleason brought her herd to Breen, Colorado, to live on land leased from Tom and Penny Compton.
The Comptons’ daughter, Leann Harbison, is a professor of Biology at FLC. Harbison introduced Gleason to another FLC Biology professor, Heidi Steltzer, with whom Gleason began brainstorming potential research projects. Steltzer put it to her students to find out what interested them. Lomaomvaya and Bennett jumped at the opportunity to study bison wallows, which could open their worlds to exploring not only the impacts of human land management but to also better understand the history of their families and communities.
For Texas-raised Bennett, agriculture is at her community’s core. A Tribal Member of the Caddo Nation in Oklahoma, Bennett says she sees herself first and last as Texan. While she’s not much for walking through snow to class in Durango, she is excited to be learning things she can bring back to her home community. At the top of that list is how to talk science with people who aren’t scientists. When she approaches a rancher, she tries to think how they think: “I know this is how you feed your family, and with what we know through science, how can we help feed future generations, too?”
“It’s important to be able to relate to someone first so we know how to get the science across in a way that’s meaningful to them,” she says. “I think that too often we just throw science at people, and I don’t think anyone likes having science thrown at them.”
Like Bennett, Lomaomvaya is a fanatical scientist. From hydrology to geology, he enjoys examining natural processes. For the bison wallow study, his scientific mind and worldview merge. As a member of the Hopi Tribe, he points out that his culture reveres bison as a symbol of moisture and strength.
“Where I grew up, it’s semi-arid, desert-like,” says Lomaomvaya, who is from the Hopi Reservation in Arizona. “For a long time, we sustained ourselves with agriculture, raising drought-tolerant crops. In the 1600s, livestock were introduced to the Hopi by the Spanish. In the 1950's, my great-grandfather started cattle ranching as his livelihood after selling his uncle’s sheep flock. My dad was given a calf when he was 12 and also went into cattle ranching. The drought had gotten pretty severe by 2004, and there wasn’t enough moisture to sustain the cattle, so my dad sold all his cattle.”
Through the bison wallow study, Bennett and Lomaomvaya hope to understand how reintroducing native bison to the land could support ecosystem restoration and potentially improve drought resilience so other ranchers, like Gleason, don’t have to follow the same fate as Lomaomvaya’s family.
“The more information I have, the better land manager and livestock manager I can be,” says Gleason of her partnership with FLC students. “It takes a long time to collect data—we need long-term studies. I hope to develop a lasting relationship with FLC, something where students can start doing research as sophomores, on projects that extend for years.”