Boats, Beaches, and…Buffalo?
A Magical Prairie in Florida Where the Buffalo Still Roam
“So too is the buffalo holy, because it is the gift of Wakan-Tanka.”-Flat Iron (Maza Blazka) Oglala Sioux
Florida is known for a lot of things. But if I had to guess, I’d bet that few people would mention buffalo as one of those things. But on a preserve in North Central Florida, near Gainesville, a herd of bison roam, and outdoor enthusiasts can venture along trails with a chance of catching a glimpse of this iconic American symbol.
Believe it or not, buffalo were native to Florida long ago, before the Europeans swarmed across the continent. It is estimated that buffalo have been the most numerous group of animals on the planet, having once thrived in numbers of 20–40 million. Most of us know the sad and shameful history of how they were decimated by European transplants to North America, and their numbers were reduced to less than 1000 animals.
But let’s turn the page on that history and discuss some positive events and other facts. First, the term “buffalo” might have been a European comparison to the old world animals of Africa and Asia, where buffalo actually do live. Think water buffalo. They are not related to bison, but there is a resemblance. Or it could be related to the French word for beef, which is “boeuf”. Whatever the case, “buffalo” caught on and these words are still used interchangeably in North America. But technically speaking, the scientific name of the North American plains bison is Bison bison bison.
Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park is a place where the land has been returned to as close to its native condition as possible. And that includes bison. While we don’t tend to think of bison when we think of the warmth of Florida and its pristine beaches, there are a few things to consider. First, while Florida is surrounded by coastline, most of the land is decidedly not on the beach. Bison love savannas, which is precisely what Paynes Prairie is, and has been, for a very long time. Also, bison are well-equipped to survive extremes in weather conditions.
In 1975, the Department of Natural Resources acquired 10 bison from the Wichita Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma and restored them to one of their former homes on Paynes Prairie.
As anticipated, the herd did very well, increasing substantially in numbers, to the point of gaining increased attention for management of the herd size.
Bison are the largest terrestrial animals in North America and are herbivorous. I’d never suspected that in my life, and most certainly in my hiking adventures in Florida, that I would be privileged to hear the sound of a herd of bison. In the video clip below, their presence is obvious by sound, and all I could think was how peaceful and secure it made me feel, and how they could have lulled me to sleep.
Despite their size, bison are surprisingly agile, and quite fast, with the ability to run between 30–35 mph. In the video clip near the end of the article, you can catch a glimpse of a few of them running across Paynes Prairie, a sight that made me feel so very alive.
A visit to Paynes Prairie is unlike visiting the usual attractions of Florida. Entering the preserve, you are warned in no uncertain terms, that wildlife is “unrestrained” and that it is not like a theme park. The miracle that is Paynes Prairie includes wild horses descended from the Spanish horses, alligators by the hundreds, myriad species of birds, bobcats, bears, and our beloved bison, to name a few. It is thrilling to step into a world that helps a human understand his or her place in the circle of life.
As I turned to exit La Chua trail near dusk yesterday, the bison were bellowing in the background and the very large alligators were slipping off the banks from their day of basking. I witnessed territorial behaviors that I’d never seen with my own eyes, and that left my heart racing, and my soul thrilled.
This year, the bison officially became one of our national symbols. It is our national mammal, in history, in legend, in indigenous culture, and now in law. It was a long time in the making, and long overdue for an animal that has played such a pivotal role in the lives of the people who have inhabited this land.
Hope to see you on the prairie and enjoying our national treasures — may we preserve them for future generations and the health of our planet!
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