Fort Worth’s bison herd marks 40 years at city’s nature center

11/26/2013 4:08 PM

11/26/2013 8:00 PM

Texas longhorns sauntering through the Stockyards hook more attention but a bigger, badder and wilder Fort Worth herd is marking 40 years this month at their home on the city’s range.

Since November 1973, when the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma donated three bison, including a pregnant cow, to the Fort Worth Nature Center and Refuge, the herd has grown to 31 after a record 11 births and the addition of a rescued white buffalo and her calf this spring.

“I’m not aware of any other city that has our setup,” said Rob Denkhaus, natural resource manager at the 3,621-acre city-owned preserve.

The bison are one of the refuge’s top draws but the buffalo are now on winter vacation until February or March in a 80-acre pasture where there is no public access.

“We get some complaints but this is our gift to the bison for working hard all year,” Denkhaus said.

For most of the buffalo, the refuge is the only home they’ve ever known, and the shaggy beasts are wary of change.

In 2005, when the refuge first opened new pastures on the west side of Buffalo Road, the cautious herd took 36 hours to move 69 feet.

With the road closed and a temporary runway set up, a nature center crew watched and waited for 34 hours but other than a few tentative scampers back and forth, the herd wouldn’t budge.

“They were ingrained on where they had been. They had been in that pasture since 1973, they had never stepped on pavement,” Denkhaus said.

“We finally decided to go to lunch and we came back two hours later and they were all across. Our assumption is our presence kept them from going. They weren’t used to us watching,” he said.

The herd is now owned and supported by the 750 members of the Friends of the Fort Worth Nature Center and Refuge, and managed by city employees on five pastures inside 210 stoutly fenced acres.

There hasn’t ever been a bison breakout, but Denkhaus was sent to the rescue in 2007 when the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Department called for help in dealing with buffalo on the loose in Saginaw.

Someone had bought some buffalo on a whim and soon found that normal fences weren’t bison proof.

“They had had some problems and they told the sheriff if someone can catch them, they can have them. So we got them,” Denkhaus said.

The Fort Worth herd’s worst calamity occurred one night in November 1980 when a rogue shooter killed the refuge’s original bull.

The killer was never caught. But the next day, Jim Diffily and Bill Voss of the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History came to the refuge and helped skin the slain beast and added the hide and skull to the museum’s collection. The meat was donated to shelters to feed the needy, according to a herd history compiled by Denkhaus.

New genetics

A bison owner in Granbury donated a replacement bull and that was the only outside replacement until 2004 when the current herd bull, now a 9-year-old, 1,700-pound specimen, was acquired from Ted Turner’s Vermejo Park Ranch in New Mexico to introduce new genetics into the herd.

All the animals are pure bison with the exception of the white buffalo and her calf which are cattle hybrids. That DNA-proven genetic purity has helped bring better prices for surplus animals that are sold yearly in sealed bid auctions by bison associations, Denkhaus said.

The pregnant white buffalo cow was rescued in May from a Dallas gas station/taco joint/store where it had been put on display. Native American groups were upset that the white buffalo, a sacred symbol of creation for Plains tribes, was being used like a “carnival sideshow.”

The store owner quickly made amends by donating the cow to the Native American groups which worked with the refuge to give them a new home. The calf was born shortly after the cow arrived.

But the mature herd has a strict social order and the two white buffalo, which are smaller than the rest of the animals, are “way down at the bottom. It’s tough to break into a herd as stable as ours,” said Denkhaus.

The herd started changing in 2007, when the Fort Worth Zoo closed its bison exhibit and donated the animals to the refuge. That same year, another bison owner donated five more animals and the Saginaw escapees arrived.

“We added 17 animals in one year. That flipped our herd very nicely,” Denkhaus said, noting that bison can live up to 20 years in captivity.

Drought impact

The Fort Worth herd has produced about 85 calves in 40 years and with the range at capacity, all 11 of this year’s new additions will be sold. Prices can range from as low as $250 to several thousand dollars but the Texas drought has driven prices down.

“The drought is putting too much hurt on our pastures. Long-term, I think it would be a good idea to take the herd down to 15 to 18 animals,” Denkhaus said.

The drought also sent hay prices soaring and two years ago the Friends group purchased hay bailing equipment and refuge crews can potentially harvest prairie grasses on an additional 500 acres of refuge property.

That has limited supplemental feeding which along with the sale of surplus animals has made the herd basically self-sustaining, Denkhaus said.

One of the reasons the city divested itself of the bison was due to liability concerns, said Rick Shepherd, president of the Friends group which raises the roughly $8,500 it costs a year for things like annual veterinary check-ups.

Close encounters

But there have been no close encounters of the wrong kind between the thousands of buffalo buffs who have checked out the continent’s largest land mammal over four decades.

“Knock on wood, visitors are smart enough to realize these are potentially dangerous animals,” Denkhaus said.

“We used to have problems of people trying to feed them inappropriate things. We’ve picked up a lot of bread bags. The bison tend to want to stay away from people. Hopefully, no one will ever be daring enough to want to jump in there with them,” he said.

Groups like the National Bison Association have been trying to get buffalo, which once roamed the Great Plains by the millions, designated as the national animal, he said.

“They are charismatic megafauna. People can relate to them. But I’m still amazed at how many people I have to talked to have never seen a bison until they come here.”

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