One by one, three trailers pulled into pasture and opened their doors. From each of them, without hesitation or hiccup, a pair of animals bounded out, stretched their legs and began to prance through the field, their breath foggy in the frigid winter air.
Starting Feb. 4, Battelle Darby Creek Metro Park became the home of six female bison, which were brought in to aid ongoing prairie restoration at the Galloway nature preserve.
“We think this will bring people to the park,” said Larry Peck, the county park system’s deputy director. “There’s the natural-resource-management component -- but also the educational component and the cool component.”
On loan from The Wilds, the bison currently live in a 30-acre paddock enclosed by electrified wire fence. They can be seen from a knoll along the Darby Creek Greenway Trail, about a half-mile north of the Cedar Ridge area. [Map]
Battelle Darby Creek Metro Park 1775 Darby Creek Dr., Galloway 614-891-0700 Homepage
I got the exclusive opportunity to ride along with Metro Parks staff during the early-morning transport from The Wilds. Here's how the day went down.
7 a.m. The day is dark when I meet Metro Parks staff at Sharon Woods, then travel to Blacklick Woods to pick up two trailers, which can each hold a pair of animals. Another trailer is waiting at The Wilds, the 10,000-acre wildlife preserve east of Zanesville. We set out in a caravan.
9 a.m. As we pull into one of the long, dusty roads at The Wilds, the bright sun peeks over the rolling hills and begins to burn off the early-morning frost. The preserve's main herd, about 100 strong, stands atop a knoll in the distant. Most huddle together, their breath a floating cloud.
9:30 a.m. Slipping on a thick layer of ice, the first trailer shifts into four-wheel drive and backs up to the end of a long series of gates and channels. The large animals at The Wilds require regular maintenance, and one way they're handled is the wooden labyrinth above, which can direct and contain bison and their colleagues. This time around, each bison is herded into one of the channels. When it passes a checkpoint, a door slides shut, preventing its retreat. Eventually, the only place to go is into the trailer.
9:45 a.m. During one of the runs, I had my hand and camera inside the slats of the trailer wall, trying to video what it looked like when the bison charged. Yes, that turned out to be exactly as scary as it sounds. When each found itself in the trailer, the animals stomped, huffed and bucked, their mass swaying and shaking the vehicles.
10:15 a.m. Intense at first, the bison settled down quickly, peering out with a curious eye at the small crowd of handlers. On the road, the naturalists said, they are mesmerized into a fairly calm state.
Occasionally for over a decade and with more focus this year, Metro Parks staff did site visits to The Wilds to see which bison would fit well into the smaller confines at Battelle Darby Creek. Ideally, the chosen bison will be non-aggressive, relatively comfortable with people and responsive to food. The six females included a larger, older matriarch and five younger cows who take to her lead.
“Some of them are very much herd animals, but each one responds differently and has a different personality,” said Dan Beetem, director of animal management at The Wilds. “We sent a nice group.”
In addition to drawing awed onlookers, bison are key to maintaining prairies, which can become tangled and overcrowded without large herbivores. By grazing, agitating and thinning out grasses, they allow the land to breathe and create ideal habitat for grassland species. This addition will be key to reviving the Darby Plains, the grassland complex that once swept across Ohio.
10:30 a.m. Three trailers each carrying two animals start the journey back to Galloway. I really wanted to see how people would've reacted to seeing bison beside them on the highway. As far as I know, no one freaked out. The new herd likely is the first to wander through the park since before the 1870s, when bison were slaughtered in large numbers.
12:30 p.m. The Metro Parks has enclosed two paddocks -- 30 acres and 18 acres -- with electrified wire fence. The animals will be moved seasonally and to protect against over-grazing. Trailers pulled into the lower, larger one to let the bison into their new home.
After all the preparation, the transition couldn't have gone more smoothly. The animals simply walked out and started prancing around, a clear sign that they are happy. The big female started checking out her new boundaries, the rest of the crew in tow.
“We’ve got a lot to learn,” said John Watts, resource manager for the Metro Parks. “How do the bison respond to the pastures? How do the pastures respond to them?”