Mar 9, 2012

By Lydia Fiser

Above: Photo taken 2009 at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park: courtesy of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

This spring, the bison that live at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park will begin to see cracked corn, molasses and sugar appear on the prairie, twice a day, every day, for a month.

Then at the end of the month, unfamiliar men will appear along with their daily treats. And suddenly the treats will become lures, leading the bison into wooden holding pens, built so they can’t see out of them. The contractor leading this project hopes the lack of visibility will keep them calm.

If the bison don’t go quietly, they’ll hear the beating of a helicopter’s blades overhead. The growl of 4-wheeler engines will crescendo over the prairie. And the plan is to force the bison, running as fast as most 4-wheelers can drive, into the holding pens where handlers will separate the males and ship them to ranches across the country.

Gainesville citizens have been fighting to stop this day since Paynes Prairie officials announced a plan in 2010 to, as the park puts it, “stabilize the bison population.” An online poll yielded more than 400 responses from concerned citizens, and the one public meeting held on the issue was filled to capacity with about 100 people voicing opposition.

Despite what may seem like the age-old conflict of animal rights advocates vs. The Man, the issue is more complicated than that. Paynes Prairie’s dilemma goes back, not just to 1975 when American bison were re-introduced to the state park, but to the late 1800s.

Back then, an animal that once boasted numbers as high as 20 to 30 million was whittled down to about 500 across the entire continent, explained Walter Munsterman, a biologist and bison expert at the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge – the second largest bison refuge after Yellowstone National Park.

In 1899, the New York Wildlife Conservation Society’s first initiative was to gather, shield and begin reproductive efforts with what was left of the American bison. But while hunters were slashing through millions of bison, ranchers were experimenting with the “super cow” – a bison, cattle hybrid. So when the society began its efforts, not only were there very few bison for them to work with, but many of the remaining bison had already lost their genetic purity.

No one knew it at the time. Only in recent years with new DNA testing technology has it become clear that herds previously thought to be genetically pure American bison actually have traces of cattle DNA.

“But just because it has that minute amount doesn’t mean it’s not still a buffalo,” Munsterman said. “They all still look, act and smell like a buffalo.”

To Munsterman, this new information gives all the more reason to preserve bison. Before the technology was so precise, if a small amount of cattle DNA was found in a bison, it likely would have been removed from the herd. With this new information, most bison are being kept in the herds – the focus now on fostering genetic diversity within the species rather than maintaining genetic purity.

Since almost all of the American bison alive today, including the Paynes Prairie bison, at some point originated from those initially rounded up off the Great Plains by the Wildlife Conservation Society, they all hail from a very close-knit, somewhat impure family tree. Today, increasing genetic diversity within the species is key to their long-term survival, according to the 2010 IUCN American Bison Status Survey and Conservation Guidelines.

At Paynes Prairie, this issue is compounded by the fact that the herd began with a donation of just 10 bison from the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge. The family tree was whittled down even more in 1985 when all but 6 of 35 bison tested positive for brucellosis. Left with six females, the park introduced one new male. But because of the small population size, inbreeding quickly became a concern, and in the late 1990s all the male bison were removed.

Friends of Paynes Prairie bought a new male bison in 2001 to introduce to the all-female herd. And now, each one of the 70 bison in the park are related to one another, and concerns of inbreeding have resurfaced.

Here and Gone

American bison called the Alachua Savanna home before hikers trampled paths and the Hawthorn Trail was paved. So it only seems fair to give them a sanctuary in North Central Florida – the tail-end of their natural habitat. But that’s not exactly why park officials re-introduced the bison to Paynes Prairie in 1975.

“They were brought here to [show] folks that bison really did exist this far south, that Florida was really this open, this wild,” said David Jowers, the director of Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park.

When the original 10 bison crossed the Florida state line, escorted by park officials, their fate and the fate of their offspring suddenly changed. No longer would they wander 59,020 acres of protected land in Oklahoma. Their home shrank to 6,000 acres – though still plenty of room for a small herd, according to Jonathan Proctor, a bison expert with Defenders of Wildlife in Montana.

Now, instead of wildlife to be preserved, the bison were classified as livestock to be numbered and accounted for, a result of Florida Statue 588.13, which categorizes all bovine animals as livestock.

When they arrived in their new home, the bison were given a new job title. They were now educators. Their purpose: to be a piece of the puzzle showing what the Alachua Savanna would have looked like when settlers first laid eyes on it in the late 1700s.

To citizens and visitors, their arrival was simply a new attraction to the park. To the bison, this meant that the same obstacles they had been facing as a struggling species – genetic instability and limited resources – would now be overcome differently.

If the Paynes Prairie bison were a conservation herd, the Livestock Management Plan that laid out the guidelines on how to “stabilize the bison population” likely would have looked very different. But as an educational herd, the point was to not allow inbreeding while keeping the bison at the park for their educational value with as little long-term stress to the herd and cost to the state as possible.

“Even the national parks have no choice but to remove some bison from time to time,” Proctor said.

A bison herd needs at least 1,000 members to be genetically stable, Proctor explained. And Paynes Prairie does not have the room or the resources to maintain a herd of this size, nor are Florida laws set up to allow for this type of conservation effort even if the park wanted to shift its strategy from education to conservation.

With all this in mind, Jowers said, “it would be irresponsible not to do anything. It was just a matter of when.”

Park officials decided on a one-time roundup this spring. All the adult males will be separated and taken to ranches that are looking for males for various reasons. The young males will be neutered and released back into the park along with all the females. And in the future when the herd begins to shrink, Jowers said the park plans to introduce new females and neutered yearlings here and there. In short, it will be a non-reproducing herd, and this will be the third and hopefully last time Paynes Prairie rounds up the bison.

The stress of rounding up bison can sometimes kill them, according to the IUCN bison guidelines. There’s also the difficulty of dealing with a herd of 70 animals that can run as fast as 35 mph and weigh up to 2,000 pounds. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection doesn’t have experts on staff who know how to round up animals of this size, so the project was put up for auction.

Four companies applied. State officials made their choice based on a combination of cost, experience and quality of the sanctuaries that each company listed as recipients of the male bison, Jowers said.

The bid could have been awarded to Holcomb Buffalo Ranch in South Dakota, part of the bison’s historic range. If it had, the male bison would have joined a herd of about 85 others in a rural, protected area, according to the ranch’s proposal. But Holcomb Buffalo Ranch quoted the state $11,200 per bison. With a herd of about 70, that adds up to $784,000, not including undetermined medical costs.

Gateway Farms offered to do the same job for $324 per bison. Gateway Farms, a High Springs-based company, has 10 years of experience with buffalo compared to Holcomb Buffalo Ranch’s 18 years of experience with bison. The main difference lies in the details of the sanctuaries specified in each proposal. Holcomb Buffalo Ranch would have given the male bison a definite lifelong sanctuary in South Dakota, a goal laid out in the Livestock Management Plan. Gateway Farms, on the other hand, will send them to a handful of ranches with varying purposes.

The final projected cost has yet to be released for the project, but it is enough that the state park doesn’t want to have to do it again in the future.

“The expense of rounding these animals up is phenomenal,” Jowers said. “This is not something we can do in-house. So for us to maintain the animals [for educational purposes], we feel the need to go to a non-reproducing herd.”

Jowers trusts Gateway Farms’ proposal, which states all five possible recipients of the bison will provide a sanctuary for them and allow them to live out their lives.

Jere Herrington, an active member of local conservation groups, has been working to protect the bison for almost two years and is skeptical.

“There is no provision for enforcement or follow-up,” she pointed out.

But, “At some point, you have to trust the vendor,” Jowers said. Adding that he doesn’t know the individual recipients, only what Gateway presented to the state park.

The Paynes Prairie bison exemplify the obstacles that the conservation movement faces across the country due to varying legal classifications and human-determined purposes for bison.

Only 10 states classify bison as wildlife. The rest, including Florida, classify them as livestock. That has led commercial herds, often selectively bred for domestic traits rather than genetic diversity, to outnumber conservation herds – about 400,000 animals to 20,500, according to the IUCN guidelines.

“If any major progress is to be made in re-establishing free-ranging bison on their native range,” these guidelines suggest that “a paradigm shift is required whereby the public recognizes bison as wildlife, and that there is a social tolerance, especially in the agricultural community.”

Where the Bison Will Roam

Until all the Paynes Prairie bison are rounded up, the number of adult males remains unknown. These are the locations that Gateway Farms’ proposal stated as possible recipients. None of these ranches have been guaranteed any bison. It is all dependent on how many adult males there are.

1. Gateway Farms
Gateway Farms is in High Springs, just up Highway 441 from Gainesville. Gateway is primarily a tree farm with an eclectic collection of animal ambassadors. It won the contract to round up all the Paynes Prairie bison and relocate the adult males.

The owner, David Hajos, said after Gateway is done dividing the males among the other ranches listed on the proposal, he may keep one if there are any left.

David Hajos has about 20 years of experience working with domestic and exotic livestock, according to Gateway’s proposal. For 10 years, he owned and maintained the second largest herd of Asian Water Buffalo in Florida – not exactly American bison, but at least from the same family.

If David Hajos does decide to keep one bull for himself, its bunkmates at Gateway Farms will be everything from a zebra and a kangaroo to painted camels and Cotton-Top Tamarin monkeys. They’ll share 40 acres of pastures and pens with straight lines of evergreens and palms.

2. Bellfield Farms
Gateway’s proposal states that Bellfield Farms has two locations, one in Micanopy and one in Maryland. However, Bellfield Farms isn’t listed in either location. The Micanopy Zoological Preserve is located at the Florida address, a preserve that the stated owner of Bellfield Farms, Jerry Holly, established for his son, Rhudy Holly, in 2000 – a childhood dream come true. The Maryland address is registered to three businesses: Jerry Holly Property Management, Frontier Stall Tent Rental and Brandywine Tent Rentals.

The Hollys aren’t strangers to obtaining exotic animals from Florida state parks. In 2004, Jerry Holly bought 53 animals – zebras, ostriches, impalas, giraffes, antelopes – from Silver Springs Nature’s Theme Park to add to Rhudy’s 600-acre, fenced preserve. The preserve’s main purpose is to breed exotic and endangered animals. In the proposal, Bellfield Farm’s states its focus is on capture, immobilization, transportation and nutrition of rare species.

David Hajos knows the Hollys well. He helps care for and round up “surplus animals” throughout the year.

3. Marvin Hajos
Marvin Hajos appeared as a bison recipient on both Gateway’s and Diamond D. Ranch’s proposals. Though his addresses on the two proposals don’t match – one is in Hollywood, the other in Lake City – the other details are fairly similar: 30 years experience with bison and something between 66 and 72 acres for 30 “different” or “exotic” animals.

Marvin and David Hajos have various business connections – they own D & M Farms together, for example – and some have said they are father and son, though I was unable to confirm this.

Marvin Hajos refused to discuss his plans for the Paynes Prairie bison if he were to receive any. He even refused to state the main purpose of his farm.

4. Gap Creek Ranch
Gap Creek Ranch is located in Bradenton. It’s the ranching portion of a two-part business, the other part being Gap Creek Buffalo Meat Sales.

Bob Cambell, one of the ranch’s owners, said their main purpose is to raise and sell bison meat. They tried beefalo, “but that confused people so we decided to go straight buffalo.”

Cambell is hoping to receive one or two male bison because his herd is currently down to 18 individuals, and he’s without a breeding bull. His bull died a few years back. He tried buying a new bull last year, but he’s not breeding. Too young, Cambell said.

“These guys won’t be eaten,” he said, referring to the male Paynes Prairie bison he’s hoping for. “We requested a fertile bull, and if we get it, it’ll be just what we need.”

5. Rodney Pickler
Rodney Pickler’s farm, located in North Carolina, is a 103-acre farm with 25 acres dedicated to a herd of 12 bison, according to Gateway’s proposal. The proposal also states that the farm, known as Southern Copper Buffalo Farm, has its own deep-water well for the bison and makes its own hay.

An article written last June in The Pilot, a local newspaper in North Carolina, stated that Southern Copper Buffalo Farm’s herd is actually up to 26 members. I called the farm, and though one of the owners was very open to speaking with me, I agreed not to publish our conversation since they haven’t even been guaranteed one Paynes Prairie bison yet. The impression I got, though, was very similar to that expressed by The Pilot. It’s a small, family-owned place. The owners, husband and wife, love their animals and their trade. They pride themselves on selling grass-fed, healthy meat and try to sell as locally as possible.

The Pilot article explained that they breed their bison and sell the younger ones once they reach about three years of age. They keep the mamas of the herd, as the couple calls them, and their bulls.

Editor’s Note: This story was written for our Spring print issue of The Fine Print, which came out in mid-February. The removal of the bison began on March 7.

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