JANOS, Chihuahua -- The wild bison herd standing in the golden grass look like they stepped out of a painting of the old west.
But this is northern Mexico, and these bison are part of modern day effort to restore native grasslands.
There s one of the males, said Jose Luis Garcia Loya, pointing to one of the largest animals. Je runs Rancho El Uno, an ecological reserve about 80 miles south of the border.
The enormous male, officially known as 17, has been nicknamed Big Show by Loya s 14-year-old son. The majestic animals, also called buffalo, once roamed North America by the millions. Their vast territory stretched into northern Mexico before they were hunted to near extinction in the 1800s.
Now, the U.S. and Mexico have teamed up to bring wild bison back. Nearly 46,000 acres at Rancho El Uno is part of ambitious plan by the Nature Conservancy to restore grasslands destroyed by overgrazing.
The Nature Conservancy also has wild bison in the United States in South Dakota, Missouri and Iowa. However, the herd in Janos did not migrate across the prairie. Instead, it started with 23 animals that were trucked across the border from South Dakota in 2010.
This was once bison territory, Garcia Loya said as he looked through binoculars at the bison walking through the grass.
Unlike cattle, which stay and feed to the root, bison eat and roam, leaving some of the plant intact. Their heavy step breaks up the soil and helps grass seeds grow.
A three year study by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, found restoring wild bison to their historic range would benefit the land in the Canada, the United States and Mexico.
The grass used to be tall, said local rancher Angel Martinez, 67, while describing the Janos areawhen he was a boy. But too much cattle, overgrazing, left it all ugly.
To rescue native grasslands, Mexico's conservationists had to win over skeptical cattle ranchers in the region. El Uno opened its doors to ranchers in the area and invited everyone in the town to celebrate the bison release.
At first we questioned why those crazy people brought the bison back, said Manuel Yanez, a local rancher who couldn't keep from laughing.
But as they start to see results, Yanez and his father-in-law Martinez joined a group of ranchers who adopted sustainable grazing practices. They now raise smaller herds. And once the pasture recovered, they no longer had to truck in alfalfa which was expensive during the drought.
Mexico s president declared the 1.3 million acres surrounding Rancho El Uno a federally protected area named the Janos Biosphere Reserve.
Students in the area have started their own ecological clubs after a field trip to see the bison.
Something you don t see every day, said Jessica Garcia, a 14-year-old a student who belongs to one of the clubs. It s very cool.
There are very few. We have to take care of them, said 11-year-old Viridiana Briseno.
And the herd is growing. Nearly three years after the original 23 bison arrived in Mexico, the herd has increased to 37 bison.
Come Uno! Garcia Loya calls out his favorite bison. Her name is Uno because she is the first wild bison born at the ecological reserve.
Now there s hope she s pregnant and will give birth this spring and continue the centuries old bloodline behind a modern day conservation effort.
Garcia Loya said many of the females in the will herd will probably become mothers.
I m pleased with what we ve been able to achieve, Garcia Loya said.