Sunday, April 3, 2011

Where The Buffalo Roam(ed)?: Dispatches from the Sunshine State V

Regular readers of this blog are already familiar with my interest in and love for the bison. There is a debate ongoing here in central Florida for almost three years that is beginning to heat up again. What shall be the fate of the roughly 60 American bison that currently graze on the 22,000 acre Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park south of Gainesville? The fate of the cracker horse population as well as that of the small shrub cattle are also in question. The concerns and question are basically the same for all involved, but permit me to focus on the fate of the bison herd.

The State of Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection is struggling with a new livestock management program for he preserve which calls for the removal of the male bison population, reducing the size of the herd to approximately a dozen females and guarantee that it would not grow any larger. There is also the question of inbreeding and the general health of the herd which was first introduced to the area in the mid 1970s. On top of this, there is concern that the current size of the herd is taxing the grazing land on the preserve and creating an ecological dilemma. Some state officials are worried that more time and money will be spent on livestock management rather than on the protection of the endangered natural resources. Moreover, there is the issue of liability and safety should a member of the herd escape from the preserve and create damage or injure someone (injury is also a concern on the preserve although there seems to be very limited human access to the herd). The remaining bison would be limited to a fenced paddock of approximately 150 acres near the visitors center.

Reduction of the herd was a concern for many who feared that the males would be sold and slaughtered for food although the State is not authorized to sell bison through the traditional channels. It has also stated that the male bison would be moved to another protected area in Florida with limited public access where they would be treated “humanely” (whatever that means). This guarantee does not mean that all will be permitted to live. Sterilization of the male bison (and male cracker horses) is also being considered as an option to removal although this would not reduce the size of the herd or address ecological concerns or the liability and safety issues. It seems to me that this is moving the problem in one area to another area without seeking a realistic and practical solution.

Some local members of the state legislature in Tallahassee have recently jumped on the bandwagon to oppose the reduction of the herd through removal from the preserve. They have offered legislation that will address the safety and liability concerns which appear to be the main sticking points in the debate. In my humble opinion, the American bison wandering the scrub land of Paynes Prairie are a natural resource that deserve protection.

Despite efforts to keep the herd intact, the State has ultimately decided that the male bison must be removed; although there is no practical plan in place as far as their fate is concerned. Removing them seems to me a simplistic solution to a complex problem. Let’s hope the herd will be permitted to thrive for many years to come through a well thought out and balanced livestock management. Attention should be paid to the herd’s best interest and I am still hopeful saner minds will prevail. I am afraid, however, that these bison may have lost their home and their freedom to roam.

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