Why the buffalo roam

It’s true that the buffalo don’t have much room to roam on Paynes Prairie.

But imagine how cramped their distant kin must have felt living in the Bronx.

When Teddy Roosevelt and his pals founded the Bronx Zoo, in 1895, there were only about 1,000 free-ranging bison left in America. So they sequestered a handful of the shaggy survivors on 20 acres next to the Bronx River, hoping that their offspring would one day help repopulate the great plains.

Didn’t go well at first.

The New York grass didn’t agree with them, and the first Bronx bison died. So they had to order take-out prairie grass for the next batch.

Hey, it’s the Big Apple. You can get take-out anything there.

Anyway, in 1907 the Bronx sent 15 buffalo to Oklahoma, where they began breeding in earnest.

About 60 years later, Oklahoma returned the favor, sort of, and sent 10 buffalo back east.

To live on Paynes Prairie.

So its possible that our first buffalo were tourists from the Bronx by way of Oklahoma.

But that’s the history of Florida in a nutshell. We’re all tourists, when you get down to it.

Actually, there are few indications, at least in recorded history, that the buffalo ever did roam this far south of their own volition. Neither Ponce de Leon, Narvez, De Soto, Ribaut, nor other early explorers mentioned seeing them.

And if there ever were “native” bison on Paynes Prairie, they were long gone before William Bartram came to visit.

So, yeah, our buffalo are from out of state. And like the Bronx bison, they found life here tough sledding at first.

By the mid-1980s, the herd was down to just three cows, thanks to an outbreak of brucellosis. We had to ship in another bull to sort of get things started again.

I suppose the eco-purist might say the bison is an exotic species that really doesn’t belong on the prairie.

But now that we’ve had them for a while, can anybody imagine Paynes Prairie without buffalo?

Admittedly, I only see them on rare occasions, and almost always from afar. But like a lot of folks, I’ve got this sentimental attachment to the prairie buffalo.

I just like the idea of them being out there.

I hope the day never arrives when the buffalo cease altogether to roam Paynes Prairie. We will have lost something substantial, something that helps define our little slice of Eden.

Tourists they may be, but they are our tourists.

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