Don’t be fooled by Buffalo Drive just outside South Park; there are no buffalo there. Instead, you’ll find the park’s 11 resident bison on a small turnoff marked “Game Preserve.”
“You have your usual suburbs, and then here you got a park with great big animals in it,” said South Park’s naturalist, John Doyle. He and Gregory Hecker care for the herd.
“After a period of time, you sort of get an attachment to them,” Hecker said. “They’re like big pets to me.”
Doyle quickly added that, while largely harmless, the nearly one-ton animals are not pets.
“They never lose that wild blood, that wildness in them. They might as well be out in the middle of nowhere on the plains,” he said.
But of course, they’re not. They’re in the middle of one of Allegheny County’s nine regional parks.
Joel Tarr, Caligiuri Professor of History and Policy at Carnegie Mellon University, explains area parks are indicative of the late-19th century urge to preserve land as natural space.
“You have the idea that nature should be untouched and people should be exposed to nature like that. So these folks really had a vision of nature that was almost pristine,” he said. “On the other hand the parks were designed for the elite.”
County Commissioner Edward Babcock seemed to have a foot in both camps. Despite describing the parks as “the people’s country clubs,” — with spaces for golf, tennis and swimming — he pushed to re-forest the former farmlands and stocked North and South Parks with deer and bison.
“There was a tension between levels of restoration,” said Tarr.
The commissioners, by today’s standards, took the restoration thing a little too far. In 1928 they hired families from the Blackfeet tribe in Montana as park caretakers and to draw visitors. Though the families didn’t stay, the bison did, growing to a herd size of 32 in the 1940s.
In South Park’s seven-acre pasture, one of the bison meanders into a patch of sunshine. It’s like watching a Volkswagen Beetle take a stroll.
Surveying the herd from behind the double fence, Doyle described the bison’s diet.
“They eat a mix of grain approximately 100 pounds a day, also two bales of hay and a bucket of corn. Plus they graze on what’s growing out there,” he said.
At times, managing the herd can be all-consuming, said Doyle.
“When we need to sell some or get the veterinarian in, that’s when it seems like everything is buffalo, buffalo, buffalo," he said. "Right now we need some new blood.”
His efforts to keep the herd’s bloodlines diverse is a familiar problem to conservationists who helped protect the bison from being hunted to near-extinction.
More than 60 million bison once lived in North America. During an 1871 trip, Colonel R. I. Dodge calculated the herds traveling north past his wagon numbered 4 million, blotting out an area almost twice the size of present-day Allegheny County. But Henry Kacprzyk, a curator at the Pittsburgh Zoo, says by 1900 the days of the American wilderness were long gone: fewer than 1,000 animals survived.
“It’s kind of…I don’t know it’s kind of nostalgic, to me,” said Kacprzyk. “They’re neat to see and everything, but there’s more to it for the casual visitor.”
Kacprzyk said the bison offer a chance to tell the good and bad of the American story.
“Try to remind people of how close to extinction these animals came and the human impact that caused that. I want people to care," he said.
Doyle does, too. But he is almost constantly engaged in buying and selling new animals to keep the herd healthy. And unfortunately, that market is made up mostly of ranchers.
“I wish I was selling them to zoos, game preserves, but that’s not the situation,” said Doyle. “I’ve done what I could to keep them around for as long as I could.”
Doyle watches a bison scratch his back on the new grass and says he’s heard of buffalo meat reaching prices of $30 a pound. "I don’t want to eat them," he said. "I just want to look at them, you know?"
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