Battelle-Darby’s bison a conservation success story

While the rest of Ohio is shivering through an unseasonably cold winter, the American bison at Battelle-Darby Creek Metro Park in western Franklin County seem to be loving the weather.

They were on wintry display on Jan. 7 during a behind-the-scenes tour of how the furry creatures – North America’s largest land animal – are cared for by park staff.

It was a standing-room-only crowd that showed up for the program. I suspect some were suffering from “cabin fever” and saw the tour as a chance to get out of the house and learn something at the same time.

Battelle-Darby Naturalist Debbie Ruppersburg provided a brief history of the park’s bison – commonly called buffalo – prior to the tour.

Six female bison arrived in 2011 from The Wilds as part of a comprehensive effort to restore the park’s tall-grass prairie ecosystem that was once part of the historic Darby Plains.

Prior to settlement, bison grazed those plains – now part of modern Madison, Franklin, and Union counties.

Ruppersburg explained bison once thrived in all 48 lower states, having migrated from Asia to North America via the Bering Strait during the last Ice Age.

Bison were migrators and Native American tribes moved with them, taking their food and all of life’s necessities from the vast herds. Prior to settlement, there were an estimated 50 million bison in what would become the United States.

Once European settlement began, hunting and habitat destruction pushed the animals westward. Railroad construction crews saw them as an endless food supply. At one point, an estimated 5,000 bison were being killed every day.

“They thought they would always be there,” Ruppersburg said.

But, they were wrong.

By the early 1900s, there were less than 1,000 bison left in the entire U.S., and most of those were in Yellowstone National Park.

Conservationists used those Yellowstone bison to eventually repopulate the species throughout the country.

Three years ago, a male joined the six females at Battelle-Darby; the females produced four offspring.

“They all did well,” Ruppersburg said.

The bull bison eventually went back to his home at The Wilds and a new male was introduced last August.

“We wanted more babies,” Ruppersburg said.

Proof of that will come in April when the females undergo thorough semi-annual examinations by veterinarians from Ohio State University.

Battelle-Darby Technician John Klever described how the examinations will take place. He led attendees at the Jan. 7 tour through a series of winding pens and chutes that capture and immobilize the bison so that vets can do their work with minimal stress to the animals.

Pastures at Battelle-Darby can provide adequate food for up to 15 bison.

Parks officials are hoping the new male will help ensure that a new crop of bison calves will be grazing those pastures this summer.

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