2011-04-21 / Local & State

Bison Babies Hoped For At Pa. Preserve

By Jenna Portnoy
THE (ALLENTOWN) MORNING CALL

ALLENTOWN, Pa. (AP) – The bison herd at Trexler Nature Preserve owes Kelly Craig a debt of gratitude.

“I just wanted to know, why don’t we have any baby bison?’’ Craig said she often wondered during frequent visits to commune with the creatures, at once peaceful and ferocious.

She did a little research and learned the nine females – or cows – are on birth control. The family planning practice prevented any bouncing baby bison surprises, but also put a vital link to the county’s heritage on a path to extinction.

In response to her inquiry, Lehigh County is developing a breeding program at the preserve, where fording the Jordan Creek en route to the bison paddock is a favorite memory for Lehigh Valley natives.

This year also marks the 100th year – what Craig termed the “bisontennial’’ – since Gen. Harry C. Trexler, an avid game hunter, introduced bison to the property.

“We didn’t want to have the day come when there were no more bison at Trexler Nature Preserve, so we had to make a change,’’ County Executive Don Cunningham said. “We want a perpetual presence of the bison in Lehigh County.’’

On a recent morning, the bison snorted and huffed, hovering around their feeding corral. A few bolted through a chute used to keep them still for veterinarians and thundered against the metal sides. They can weigh up to a ton each and range in age from 7 to their mid-20s.

When Trexler brought bison to his game preserve in North Whitehall and Lowhill townships, there were only 800 American bison left in the country, said Rich Rosevear, general curator at Lehigh Valley Zoo, located on the preserve.

“Hunters were the first conservationists,’’ he said. “They were out there seeing how fast the animals were disappearing.’’

At the time of Trexler’s death in 1933, there were 98 bison in the herd, making it the biggest east of the Mississippi. But breeding bison today isn’t as easy as pouring the champagne and dimming the lights.

Taking the cows off contraception doesn’t guarantee they’ll be able to conceive calves, said Glenn Solt, the county general services director. To ensure the bison whoopee ends with a calf in the oven, the zoo is looking for ranches and other zoos willing to part with two fully functioning cows.

Of the three males – or bulls – the dominant male will play papa, and the others would be traded. Zookeepers had been worried he’d soon have to fend off challenges by the two adolescent bulls anyway, Rosevear said.

“Breeding behavior,’’ he explained, didn’t stop when the females went on the pill in 2003.

Now that their goal is procreation, however, the county is creating a 9.5 acre honeymoon suite of sorts across the road from the current 8.5- acre paddock, said Parks Director Bob Stiffler.

In addition to the $80,000 the county pays the zoo annually to care for the bison as well as the elk and palomino herds, the improvements will cost about $20,000, which is already in the park’s budget.

The herd will be rotated to take advantage of the new grasses. The paddock will be surrounded by a heavy-duty fence made for safety not privacy – voyeurs will still have a clear view from the road.

Cue the romantic music.

Return to top