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South Neighborhoods
South Park's bison herd is an unusual and cherished attraction

Wednesday, September 03, 2003

By Sharon Camino

San Diego boasts its pandas, and SeaWorld touts Shamu, but for more than 75 years, Allegheny County's South Park has quietly been home to a herd of one of nature's most enduring -- and one of the area's most exotic -- creatures, the American buffalo.

The youngest, right, of four bison calves at South Park nuzzles up against another one. The calf was born July 30 in the game preserve, bringing the herd size to nine. (Tony Tye, Post-Gazette)

There in the park's game preserve, past the mini-golf and just below the wave pool, on some 15 acres of grassland roam nine bison, as they're properly known -- five adults and four calves.

"It's a nice attraction to have, kind of like South Park's identity," said John Doyle, the park's resident naturalist for 23 years. "I'm glad they're here."

And Doyle's not the only one. In 2001, when talk arose of moving the bison to Round Hill Park, the county's exhibit farm, the South Park Historical Society responded with a petition of more than 800 signatures to keep them in the South Hills. The petition prompted Allegheny County Council to adopt a measure "forbidding any such movement from this location," securing the herd's future in the park.

"They're here to stay," said park Manager John Stibrik.

He estimates a couple of hundred people visit the game preserve each day to feed the ducks and stroll the long concrete walkway to catch a glimpse of the noble buffalo.

"There's too much invested here, plus the public didn't want to see [them] go," said Greg Hecker, the park employee who serves as the bisons' keeper. "People from South Park are proud to be able to say that they've got these buffalo here, and they've been here since the 1930s or so."

A piece of the West

Actually, it was 1927 when a herd of 18 was delivered to the newly created South Park, with the quaint idea that a tribe of bona fide Native Americans would care for the animals. County commissioners intended the tribe to be as much an attraction as the buffalo.

Former Commissioner Charles "Buck" McGovern is largely credited with the idea, influenced perhaps by the conservation efforts of his friend and fellow serviceman in the Spanish-American War, Theodore Roosevelt.

Blackfeet Indians were relocated from a Montana reservation to the park but, unaccustomed to Pittsburgh weather and homesick for their brethren, they stayed only a year. The buffalo remained, peaking at 32 head in the mid-1940s, and then dwindling to just three by 1970. The herd is now at nine, with four new calves since April, and while the latest births are welcome and noteworthy, the pen is near capacity.

"You don't want more than 10 to 12 in a penned area this size," said Hecker, who's been caring for the herd for seven years. "Otherwise, it's not good for the animals."

Doyle agreed and stressed the importance of the right gender ratio.

"One male in the corral, no problem. If you have two -- a problem, even if they're related." Fortunately, a single bull is all that's needed to keep the South Park progeny secure. "One male can breed 10 to15 cows," Doyle said.

Safe animals, safe people

Both the federal and state Departments of Agriculture strictly regulate the conditions of the preserve and the treatment of the animals, inspecting and offering suggestions to keep them in compliance with government standards.

The 8-foot-high double fence is a federally mandated safety measure, designed to prevent injuries to a curious public.

Although bison aren't aggressive by nature, they're also not domesticated. They'll stampede and bulldoze when they feel threatened and can be temperamental. Their senses -- especially smell -- are highly developed, and as massive as the beasts are, bison are quick, able to move their 6-foot-high, ton-and-a-half bodies at 35 mph.

"They're unpredictable," Hecker said. "There's a danger involved." And he warns that even a casual brush with one of the beasts can feel like a smack from a freight train.

"You never really want to turn your back on them," he said. "I'm always watching to see where they are, because, believe me, they can sneak right up on you."

No one has ever been harmed by the buffalo, but Doyle cautions that they are essentially wild animals.

"People think they're in a game preserve, so that they must be relatively tame, but they still have all the wild instincts," he said.

One of those instincts is to roam. Hecker remembers two times when the buffalo briefly escaped.

"It has to be something that really spooks them," he said, recalling a bad snowstorm in 1992. "There were drifts inside the pen 3 feet high, and they got scared. They were seeking lower ground and they did find [it] -- they found Corrigan Drive." There, park employees corralled them with snow plows and maintenance vehicles and guided the herd back up into the penned area.

The other flight came with the fireworks finale of a Labor Day Weekend Rib Cook-off in the late 1980s.

"The trajectory of the fireworks came up over the buffalo pen," said Hecker, describing how the noise of the blasts frightened the animals. "During the grand finale, they'd had enough; they broke out. That happened the final night [of the cook-off], and, of course, since then, they never shot fireworks off again."

Though not maintenance-free, the beasts are hardy and can thrive even in poor pasture areas. At South Park, the herd is fed each morning around 6:30 when Hecker treks out to the inner fenced area with two 50-pound bags of cattle feed and a bushel or two of dried corn cobs.

Hay supplements their diet in the winter, when snowfall covers the grazing area, and throughout the year the herd is treated to snacks of fresh apples.

"They love apples," said Hecker, "nothing else. I've seen people try and feed them carrots, celery. I found a whole grapefruit in there before, and they were just kicking it around like a soccer ball."

Round Hill Farm provides hay, and apples and corn often come gratis from local farmers and grocers, so feed costs for the herd are minimal. In the county parks budget of nearly $7 million, Stibrik estimates annual expenditures for keeping the bison, including shots and veterinary care, run about $500, and even that may be offset by the sale of the offspring. The average market price for a bull calf is about $300, and yearlings have sold for as much as $800.

Most residents would agree that the buffalo are a bargain, but the South Park herd is also unique in its accessibility.

About 1,000 bison graze across Pennsylvania, but most are on privately owned ranches, bred for their meat.

Lehigh is the only other county in the state that maintains and exhibits buffalo.

The Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium doesn't have them, and Oglebay Park in West Virginia recently sold its herd.

That's not likely to happen here. Though the calves may eventually go for sale or trade, the South Park herd will remain, continuing in Pittsburgh the animal's long tradition of survival.

Sharon Camino is a freelance writer.

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