Temperatures in the mid-teens failed to curb the enthusiasm of more than 100 wildlife watchers who attended the American bison update at Battelle-Darby Creek Metro Park, east of West Jefferson, on Sunday.
It was standing room only in the park’s Visitor Center classroom as naturalist Debbie Ruppersburg provided a brief history of North America’s largest land animal and how the park became home to a small herd of the critters — more commonly known as buffalo.
Outside, the park’s seven bison frolicked in their winter pasture as technician John Klever tossed alfalfa treats their way, luring them close enough to the fence for good photo ops.
The bison are accustomed to bitter cold — more so than the human observers who lined the fence with high-powered cameras.
Ruppersburg explained that an estimated 50 million American bison inhabited all 48 lower states prior to European settlement. That included Ohio and the tall-grass prairie of the Darby Plains.
They were migratory animals, often moving in vast herds and followed by Native Americans who saw them as both a food source and a religious symbol.
“Indians used every part of the animal,” Ruppersburg said. “They depended on bison.”
As the Eastern U.S. became more populous, bison were pushed farther West. Over-hunting and other factors reduced their numbers to less than 1,000 by the late 1800s. Most of those lived in Yellowstone National Park.
Using Yellowstone bison as source stock, environmentalists across the country began the painstaking work of reintroducing this treasured symbol of America.
As part of Franklin County Metro Parks’ effort to restore Battelle-Darby’s 1,500 acres of natural prairie habitat, it acquired six bison cows from The Wilds in 2011.
“They are a keystone species,” Ruppersburg said.
That means they are vital in attracting and keeping other native wildlife.
Three years ago, the park brought in a bull to mate with the cows.
The result was four offspring.
“All did well,” Ruppersburg said.
That bull left after doing his duty. A second arrived last August.
“He thinks he is in heaven now,” Ruppersburg said, laughing.
In order to monitor their health and well-being, Battelle-Darby’s bison undergo semi-annual “check-ups” by veterinarians from The Ohio State University.
Klever led attendees through that process, demonstrating how a series of narrowing pens and chutes are designed to briefly capture and disable the animals without causing them excess stress.
With the new male bison in residence, park officials hope for more babies this spring. Pasture space will accommodate up to 15 animals, Ruppersburg noted.