Community group remains neutral on prairie animals
A young horse stands by as its mother grazes in Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park on Oct. 4, 2009.

The board of Friends of Paynes Prairie, a citizen support organization for the park, decided at a meeting Wednesday afternoon to not take a side about a plan to remove wild bison and horses from the park.

Robert Hutchinson, the organization’s president, said that members could take a stand individually, but it would be best not to have an opinion as a group because the organization is meant to support the park.

“We don’t have a policy-making role,” he said.

However, board member Frank Saier said at the meeting that the purpose of the organization is to support citizens, not the park staff.

The decision to remain neutral came after the Florida Park Service released a draft of a plan to cull the herds of wild bison and horses. The park service has also scheduled a community meeting to get public input about the plan on Nov. 30 at 7 p.m. at the Doyle Connor Building, 1911 SW 34th St.

The park service has said the bison and horses need to be removed because they could be dangerous if they escaped and the park doesn’t have the money for fences to keep them from escaping. Also, they said they want to prevent inbreeding.

According to the draft of the plan, about 12 older, female American bison will continue to roam the 22,000-acre park, but all of the males will be removed. Three to five young, female bison will also be moved into a 150-acre area near the visitor center observation tower so visitors can easily see them. Currently, about 60 bison roam the park.

“Unfortunately, when you look outside and you look over the fence, they aren’t there,” said Florida Park Service director Donald Forgione.

Instead of auctioning off the bison, they will be given to whoever is chosen to remove them from the park. Park management said it does not yet know who will do the job.

A similar plan is proposed for the wild Florida cracker horses, including removing all males and putting about three females in a 150-acre observation area. Currently, about 30 horses roam the park.

Horses that are removed from the herd will be sold at the annual Florida Cracker Cattle Association sale and at local auctions and sales.

Park management was not sure who might purchase the horses but said breeders may buy them.

Three older, female cracker cattle will also be in the observation area, but the herd of about 45 cattle will remain at Hickory Ranch, the park’s cattle ranch, and will not be affected by this plan.

The idea of culling the herds was first mentioned in a memo that David Jowers, manager of Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, sent to Forgione in 2008. Forgione was promoted to director of the Florida Park Service in July, and the intent to reduce the herds was announced in September.

Jowers said there wasn’t a specific example of danger to humans that caused the park to take action.

“It’s just one of those ongoing things that keep testing the boundaries more and more,” he said.

He said he was concerned that a bison could wander onto a road and someone would crash into it.

“I expect that someone, some innocent motorist, is going to encounter a bison in the middle of the night because they cannot see them,” he said, “and it’s going to be tragic.”

Kristin Lock, information officer for Florida Park Service, said that there were two instances in May in which bison had to be killed after “escaping and charging at park police.”

However, Yellowstone National Park Wildlife Biologist Rick Wallen said that, depending on how many bison get out, it can take just one person to get a bison to walk back into park boundaries. The main problem for Yellowstone, which has more than 2,000 bison, is when it has to stop traffic when a herd crosses a highway, but he said that happens only about two weeks a year.

However, he said managing bison near cities can be difficult.

“Bison are a real challenge for wildlife mangers in modern society,” he said.

Chuck Littlewood, a park volunteer, said he has volunteered for Paynes Prairie for six-and-a-half years, and during that time about three bison got out and were rounded back into the park’s boundaries.

“I don’t think it’s an ongoing, frequent event as they would like to portray it,” he said.

Littlewood said Jowers told the Friends of Paynes Prairie board in September there was not enough money to repair fences around the park to keep bison from wandering into neighboring yards.

But Jowers asked the board the same day for help in purchasing a swamp buggy that would cost about $108,000. The buggy would act as a rescue vehicle and would help the park remove invasive species, Jowers said. He also asked for help in raising $3,500 for split-rail fences around 50 campsites to keep campers from stepping on plants.

When asked how much it might cost to replace or repair fences, Jowers said he hadn't explored the idea of new fences.

The Florida Park Service was unable to provide an estimate because "a need for alternative or additional fencing has not been determined at this time," said Florida Department of Environmental Protection Interim Press Secretary Amy Graham.

Greg Stephens, a park volunteer and a member of Friends of Paynes Prairie, said he understands that it can be expensive to manage the bison and horses, but he doesn't agree that the animals should be removed because the preserve can't afford money for fences.

He said instead, the preserve should have a fundraiser to raise money for fences.

"This is a very nature-oriented and generous community," he said.

But Jowers said that alternatives to removal have not been explored.

"This is what we're working on, and we're going to wait and see where this thing goes," he said. "We don't have any alternative plans at this time."

He said the current plan will not be finalized until after the community meeting.

Littlewood said he is encouraging members of the community to attend the public meeting so they can voice their opinions.

"I think the public is owed an opportunity to explore alternatives," he said.