Having arrived late on Friday, Oct. 15, the threesome are starting to get acclimated to their four-acre pasture at the zoo, which will feature a visitor viewing building and a shelter.
The introduction of bison at the zoo fulfills a goal of exhibiting and working to conserve wildlife species that are native to the plains, including bison and pronghorns.
The Wind Cave bison come with a pedigree. The herd is noted for lacking any evidence of cattle genes, which were widely introduced when ranchers bred cattle with buffalo to boost the number of bison, once on the verge of extinction, and to develop a hardy hybrid.
The herd at Wind Cave in the Black Hills of South Dakota also is notable for being free of brucellosis, a disease that can harm cattle. The park has been working for more than two decades to distribute surplus bison at nature preserves and Native American reservations around the country.
“I really am proud,” said Sally Jacobson, director of the Red River Zoo. “As far as I know, we’re the first zoo to receive Wind Cave bison, so that’s a huge feather in our cap.”
The Wind Cave National Park bison herd, shown here in a 2009 photograph, was established with the donation of 14 bison by the Bronx Zoo in 1913. The zoo’s herd originated in Wyoming and Texas. The Red River Zoo in Fargo will exhibit three Wind Cave bison. Patrick Springer / The Forum
Zoos, in fact, have long played a crucial role in conserving the bison, which dwindled to less than 1,000 by 1890, having been hunted almost to oblivion for their robes and hides.
The New York Zoological Society’s Bronx Zoo founded the Wind Cave herd when it shipped 14 bison in 1913 to what was then the Wind Cave National Game Preserve, established the year before to conserve what has become the national mammal.
The Bronx Zoo bison came from Wyoming and Texas, according to Wind Cave National Park.
The effort was spearheaded by William Hornaday, a taxidermist who worked to save the bison from extinction. He and others joined with Theodore Roosevelt to establish the American Bison Society, a preservation group.
“The Wind Cave bison are no secret,” Jacobson said, adding the herd is well known in the wildlife conservation and zoo communities. “Everyone knows how precious they are.”
The preservation of the bison is regarded as one of the greatest successes in wildlife conservation, Jacobson said, and the Red River Zoo is happy to join in that ongoing effort.
“It’s a really great story that many of us should be proud of,” she said. “There’s so much history. It’s an important animal to have.”
The three bison sent from Wind Cave National Park were among 118 head that were rounded up earlier this month and will be transferred to new homes, including those affiliated with The Nature Conservancy and the InterTribal Buffalo Council.
“Our zoo-park partnership with Red River Zoo grows our capacity to conserve wildlife native to the Great Plans and expands opportunities for the public to see bison and understand their broad role and cultural value,” said Leigh Welling, Wind Cave National Park’s superintendent. “By providing a home for a small conservation herd, the zoo will help us preserve vital genetics and assist in bison restoration.”
Before the roundup, the park’s herd was around 550, said Tom Farrell, the park’s chief of interpretation. Farrell believes the transfer of three bison to Red River Zoo is the first from the park’s herd to a zoo.
A helicopter herds bison at Wind Cave National Park into corrals during a roundup in 2009. The Wind Cave bison herd has important genetics. Three animals rounded up in 2021 were transferred to the Red River Zoo in Fargo. Patrick Springer / The Forum
Red River Zoo has been working with Wind Cave through a parks and zoos collaboration program for several years. Jacobson has helped with surveys in the park, including those for black-footed ferrets, bison, pronghorn and monarch butterflies.
“Wildlife are part of the historical landscape our nation’s parks sustain and interpret,” said Julie Anton Randall, president of the Wildlife Restoration Foundation, which builds partnerships between zoos and parks. “Zoo partners contribute expertise and resources to help parks meet America’s wildlife health and population recovery goals.”
The Red River Zoo’s bison pasture is divided into three parts so the animals can be rotated to help keep the grass healthy. Hay also will be provided.
The three bison include two females and one male. All will be named. The male has been named Barry, in memory of Barry Schuchard, a longtime Red River Zoo supporter who died earlier this year.
Once the bison mature, the zoo will breed them and place the offspring with other zoos or preservation herds, Jacobson said.
“This is all part of an ongoing zoo-park partnership with keystone wildlife species,” she said.
The exhibit for the bison, including a public viewing building, won’t be ready to open until June or July. By then, the three bison will have become well-adjusted to their zoo home, Jacobson said.
To get ready for the bison, the zoo built special 8-foot fencing and a shelter structure, with financial support from Scheels and other donors. The $1.2 million Pride of the Prairie exhibit also will feature a colony of prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets that will be relocated, as well as pronghorns and sandhill cranes.