Bison are big beasts

BISON are big beasts. They are powerful if they choose to employ their full strength to get from point A to point B. A little fence will work to keep them contained only if they already feel secured in their home range pasture. However, if pressed too much, the little fence noted above is easily breached. Fence jumping or fence breaking has not been a big issue by bison at Green Castle Recreation Area near Ferguson since the initial stocking in November, 1989. But it has happened.

Updates to the exterior bison enclosure fence is just one phase of the planned improvement. New tall wooden fence posts have been purchased. Attached to these tall posts will be a new woven wire system. Ultimately, the fence is an improved safety item for both the bison and the public.

The barn and hay storage facility will allow for storage of winter food supplies for this small bison herd. While the hay will be safe from rain and snowy weather, the inside of the new building will have space dedicated to the aerator pumps that keep part of the water ice-free in the south silt pond. This pond is also the home to the resident trumpeter swans. An ice free zone in the pond created by constantly agitated water from deep down helps hold the oxygen level high enough to assist fish with their breathing. The design of the barn will make it look like an old barn, although the wood working skills of Mary Malloy and Jeremiah Manken will assure its structural integrity for many decades into the future.

The last element involves a corral. Normal cattle handling corral gates and chutes are not strong enough to withstand a bison’s rage if it so chooses to tackle the restraints of confinement. Tall panels, extra strong steel pipe chutes and specially designed circle pens are needed to keep bison where people want them. Luckily, bison ranchers who have lots more experience in handling bison know what works and what doesn’t. Safe bison handling requires a system that works.

So there you have it, a summary of this phase of Green Castle’s long range improvement plans. Your help thus far has been very much appreciated. Your assistance with a few more donations will be needed to get this project on the boards, in the ground and operating before winter arrives. Do call Mike Stegmann at 641-752-5490 to discuss how your tax deductible donation can move this project over the top. Thank you so much for your past and present help. Keep up the good work.

In his book titled “A Country So Full of Game,” author Dr. James Dinsmore, now a retired professor of wildlife biology at Iowa State University, noted many items of interest in the chapter dedicated to bison, commonly called the American Buffalo.

Dinsmore’s research brings to our attention many of the factors that influenced the settlers to Iowa as well as their effect upon native wildlife during the giant push of people from the Mississippi River counties in the 1830s all the way to the Missouri River by the late 1840s, 50s, and 60s.

Here are just a few tidbits of facts that emerged from early explorers, scientists, surveyors and others. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark kept detailed journals of their observations during their Voyage of Discovery. They entered southwest Iowa on the 18th of July, 1804. For the next 34 days as they traveled north on the river, recording and gathering new plants and animals for science. Wild animals were not only for the record, some were killed to provide meat for the crew. Deer and bison are noted as well as a few elk, beaver and wolves plus Canada geese. On Aug. 21, 1804, Lewis and Clark left Iowa’s borders into Nebraska and South Dakota territory.

All of Iowa had at least some bison in relatively small herds … small that is compared to what was to be learned later about the great herds of the Dakotas, Montana, Nebraska, Kansas and Texas. Estimated at between 50 to 75 million animals across the grasslands of the great plains, bison were well adapted to life on the plains. For Iowa settlers, chance encounters with bison was usually the case. Each encounter was seen as free meat. The hunt was on. In most cases after an extensive chase on horseback, shots were fired and a buffalo died. Families were fed. People lived and people survived. Herds tended to be small with only a few hundred. In 1820, a herd estimated at 5,000 was observed during a traverse by Stephen Kearny in what is now Clay or Palo Alto County near Ruthven. On a return trip over this same general area 15 years later, (1835), Kearny noted a lot less bison on the landscape. This was not a scientific count, just an observation with merit for the changing times happening within Iowa’s borders.

Dinsmore notes that once the first permanent settlement of a county was established, it took on average only six years for the last record of a bison within that county. Bison were big, relatively easy to hunt, and had much value for its meat when taken. Eastern Iowa saw its last bison in the late 1830s. Marshall County records indicate the year of its last wild free ranging bison was before 1847. Much of north central Iowa has records showing bison disappearance in the late 1850s. Northwest Iowa was the holdout into the late 1860s and early 1870s.

Bison did not become extinct. From a low point of about 1,000, work by early conservationists, landowners, ranchers and zoological institutions saved this species. Three Iowa men played significant roles in bison preservation efforts. One was William F. (Buffalo Bill) Cody who was born near Davenport in 1846. He went west as a young boy where he helped supply buffalo meat to railroad builders. Another Iowan was John Lacey, a congressman from Oskaloosa. He initiated federal legislation to make it illegal to transport game taken against the rules across state lines. The impact of that law is still used today in anti-poaching cases. And lastly, William T. Hornaday is noted for his passion for conservation of the bison. Hornaday attended then Iowa State College (before it was a university) in 1873. His conservation efforts noted him as an leading spokesman for conservation.

The bison exhibit at Green Castle is small. But it is huge in terms of the history lessons it can teach. Part of the value of its presence is the fact the people can see these majestic animals, watch them move about and interact with each other, and note how an animal of this size and stature played an important role in the history of America. The loss of the great herds was probably inevitable, but it is still a loss. Just not a total loss.

Sunday is DUCKS UNLIMITED Iowa River Valley Chapter’s annual TRAP SHOOT. It is not too late to arrange for a friend or two or three to show up tomorrow at the Marshalltown Gun Club trap range located at the west side of the airport on Reed Avenue. Teams or individuals are all welcome. You will be placed in a group the day of the event. Three rounds of trap will be shot. Shells are available at the club. Lunch will be served and is included in the $30 per person entry fee. Plus a door prize will be given away in addition to awards for the team with the most points. All the proceeds will be used to purchase items for next year’s DU membership banquet. Help support DU and its wetland conservation efforts.

TREES, TREES and more TREES. Again this year in cooperation with Alliant Energy’s Operation RELEAF, the Marshall County Conservation Board will host the program for tree purchases. Trees need to be ordered through Alliant’s

website Trees will cost $25 each with a limit of two trees per customer. The supply is getting low with remaining species of trees being Star magnolia, White Oak, American Linden, White Pine and two Patten Pear Trees.

“The older we get, the fewer things seem worth standing in line for.”

-Will Rogers

Garry Brandenburg is a graduate of Iowa State University with BS degree in Fish & Wildlife Biology. He is the retired director of the Marshall County Conservation Board. Contact him at PO Box 96, Albion, IA 50005.