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Heads butt over plan to thin bison herd at Paynes Prairie State Park in north Florida

Florida's state parks are a haven for all sorts of wildlife — roseate spoonbills, bats and black bears, to name a few. But only Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park can claim to have a herd of bison.

Being known as the home of buffalo that roam has been a big tourist draw for the park south of Gainesville. But the herd has also become a headache for state park officials.

The bison break through fences, cross highways and wander in the suburbs. They've blocked hiking paths, charged rangers, scared tourists. One woman reported being trapped in a felled tree, where she feared being trampled. Instead she wound up "covered with — as politely as I can put this — buffalo snot."

So state park officials want to thin the herd this winter, removing all the adult males. They have asked contractors to put in proposals for how they would do the job and how much it might cost — and where they might move up to 35 males that have already shown some attitude.

"Our wish is that they remain safe and live out the rest of their lives," said Florida Park Service director Donald Forgione. But when asked where the bison could be moved so they won't wind up being shot for sport or turned into burgers, he said, "We're not really sure."

The park service plan has stirred up strong feelings among the bison's many fans. Some have picketed. Others have organized a petition drive. The Florida Wildlife Federation has joined in calls to preserve the herd intact, led by president Manley Fuller, who says of the big animals, "I see them and my heart just starts going. They're one of the cool things about living in Florida."

Florida used to have native bison herds. Naturalist William Bartram reported seeing them in the vicinity of Paynes Prairie when he hiked through the region in 1774. Settlers and Seminoles wiped them out.

So 200 years after Bartram's sighting, state park officials decided that they needed to make the prairie look the way it did in his day. That meant bringing back the animals he saw.

"Some of our fellows got the bright idea to restore the bison," recalled Ney Landrum, then the head of the park service. "So I said, 'Have at it.' " In 1975 Landrum got permission from federal officials to move about 10 buffalo from the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma to Paynes Prairie.

Except for a brucellosis outbreak that nearly wiped them out, the bison have adapted well to their new home. The herd doubles every four years, and now numbers 50 to 70, Forgione said. The park just isn't equipped to manage 140 bison in 2015, he said, especially given some of the incidents of the past two years.

Twice last year males escaped from the park, and when rangers and local deputies tried to catch them, the animals charged. The pursuers, now being pursued, fired shotguns and rifles repeatedly, eventually killing the big beasts. In one case, a neighbor later complained about the stench.

"We love the bison and we love the visitors loving the bison," Forgione said. But given incidents like that one, removing all the males "is just responsible herd management."

Some opponents have suggested the park should instead beef up its fences. Forgione pointed out two problems: Stronger fences would keep out the deer that now cross back and forth over the park boundary, and a fence hasn't been built that can contain a determined bison.

"A fence, for a bison, is just a suggested boundary," Forgione said.

Fuller said the park should instead make it easier for visitors to view the bison safely, by offering, say, elevated viewing stands. Among the supporters of that plan is the woman who wound up smeared with mucus from one head-swinging female buffalo.

Tonja Walker, who lives in Ocala, said that despite her ordeal, she doesn't want the herd thinned. The whole time she was surrounded by smelly beasts and being painted with mucus, she said, her one thought was, "I am going to die today, but isn't this awesome?"

Walker compared the bison to the alligators that also populate the prairie — one of which almost landed on her foot once. "Does that mean they're going to remove all the alligators from the prairie because they represent a physical threat?" she asked.

The bottom line, she said, is that the bison belong on the prairie.

"It's their property," she said. "We're just sharing it with them."

Craig Pittman can be reached at craig@tampabay.com.

Heads butt over plan to thin bison herd at Paynes Prairie State Park in north Florida 11/25/11 [Last modified: Saturday, November 26, 2011 9:05pm]

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