Things that catch my attention: Bison, which are pretty hard to miss

November 4, 2009 at 6:07 pm Leave a comment

bisonI guess an American bison isn’t really a pet –  although some individuals may be –  and so doesn’t qualify for this blog; not really. But the Sunday edition of our local newspaper, the North County Times, had a front page article I wanted to share. The article by Jeff Rowe, “Home on the (firing) range” is about U.S .Marine Corp Base Camp Pendleton’s herd of bison.

Yes, bison  — you know, American buffalo. Buffalo is the species’ common name and the one we learned in the cowboy movies but is incorrect. Bison, as they should be called, once roamed the American mid-west by the hundreds of thousands. They could be found as far north as Canada, south to Mexico, and east to the Appalachia mountains. They were never native to southern California, however.

By the late 1880’s, the huge herds that roamed the mid-West had been reduced significantly. The Native American tribes and new settlers hunted the bison for both meat and hides while trophy hunters would take only the horns or skulls. The expanding railroad companies also sent hunters out to kill entire herds. By 1884, the bison was almost extinct.

Although the sprawling 125, 000 acre base is best known for the Marines who serve and train there, Camp Pendleton is also a nature preserve. It’s home to more than 17 endangered or threatened species. It’s not unusual to see a Golden Eagle soaring on the wind currents above the base or hear an owl hooting at night. Bobcats, mountain lions, badger, native weasels, southern mule deer and many other animals thrive on the base.

These animals are native to this region, though, and the bison are not. In the mid-1970’s the San Diego Zoological Society asked Camp Pendleton to allow 14 bison to roam the far reaches of the base. The Zoological Society didn’t have room for the animals who do best with lots of space to roam. In addition, by isolating the small herd, they could be protected from cattle-borne diseases.

The herd is now grown to more than 150 animals. With few natural predators –  even the mountain lions don’t mess them them – the herd is growing each year.

Several experts now consider this herd to be genetically valuable. Many of the bison left today –  even those roaming free in Yellowstone — are mixed with domestic cattle. Their genes are no longer pure. However, previous genetic testing on a bull and a cow in the Camp Pendleton herd showed that there were no cattle genes. Therefore, in the future some of these animals may be used in breeding projects elsewhere.

Meanwhile, the bison on Camp Pendleton have split into several small herds or family groups. There is natural water on the base —  small streams and rivers, and springs –  that have water all year round. The grazing is good.

If a bison wanders on to a firing range –  this is a Marine Corps training base after all — all firing stops until the bison decides to leave.

They tend to avoid the roads,  but if they do come upon a road, all traffic stops. You never try to rush a bison or your car will be severely damaged. There have been a few traffic accidents, usually at night when the driver can’t see the bison.

When my husband and I lived in base housing a number of years ago, I thought he was lying to me when he said Pendleton had bison. I was young and he’d pulled my leg on more than one occasion. So to prove to me he was messing with me, he drove me out to a distant part of the base and sure enough, a small herd of cows with their calves was grazing in the fields near the road.

It was such a serene scene. Calm and picturesque, and yet so very Western. I kept waiting for the cowboys on horseback to come riding over the hill.

I was happy to read that the herd is still thriving on Camp Pendleton and I give the Marine Corps credit for harboring the bison as well as the other threatened and endangered species living on the base. Good job, guys!

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