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Baby Bison Welcomed To Restored Metro Park Prairie Habitat

Baby Bison, 'Red Dog,' and its mother on the plains.
Renee Wilde
The newest 'Red Dog' or baby bison has been born and will be introduced into the Ohio prairie this spring.

After reconstructing parts the former Darby Plains Prairie, Metro Parks are welcoming baby bison to their new home this spring.

Before European settlement, prairies were an important part of Central Ohio.

To learn more about them, I took a trip to see Kevin Kasnyck, the Manager of Park Operations for the Columbus and Franklin County Metro Parks.

We met at the 7,000 acre Battelle Darby Creek Park, near West Jefferson. The area is called the Darby Plains Prairie. Historically it was a four hundred square mile tallgrass prairie, one of the few that extended this far east of the Mississippi.

It extended, pretty much, from the Indiana state line to Columbus.

Tallgrass Prairies once covered 170 million acres of North America and was one of the continent's largest continuous ecosystems.

“What happened, of course, was the invention of the plow and agriculture,” Kasnyik says.

The shaping of the landscape just changed. It didn’t take long for people to figure out the soil under the prairie are extremely fertile. Over 95% of the original tallgrass prairie is now in farmland.

The Darby Plains Prairie was pretty much decimated as well, but there was support in the community to rebuild part of that original prairie ecosystem.

“We started to do, kind of grassroots effort to gather seed from the Darby Plains region” Kasnyik says. “And the only seed that was really left was in pioneer cemeteries that hadn’t been plowed or disturbed, or along railroads. Those were the kinds of places where there was only a little bit of the plants left.”

He says, over time they started to pick that seed. They’d harvest the prairie grasses, like Big Bluestem, Little Bluestem, Cordgrass and Indian Grass. Now there are over 2,000 acres of prairie here.

We come into view of a small herd of North American Bison, grazing in one of the park's tallgrass prairie restorations.

Bison are a keystone Species that helped create the habitat on the Great Plains. A keystone species is an organism that helps define an entire ecosystem. If that species were to disappear from the ecosystem, no other species would be able to fill its ecological niche.

In the tallgrass prairie ecosystem, the bison aerate the soil with their hooves as they forage, which helps disperse native seeds and stimulate plant growth to maintain a healthy and balanced ecosystem.

“So we have eight cows and one bull,” Kasnyik says. “In the near future we hope to have some calves.

Baby bison are called Red Dogs, because they’re born orange-red and as they mature the hair darkens to brown, as their horns and shoulder hump start forming.

Kasnyik says people come out to see the bison and they get very excited. He hopes it causes people to think more about conservation.

“And when they start to learn the relationship between the bison - look at him rubbing his head on the ground - bison and the prairies, in this area right here where they live, I hope they get a respect for it, and want to learn more about it, and get a little bit excited about it,” he says.

The park’s first Red Dog was born shortly after this interview on May 4th, and three more have been born since then.

Renee Wilde was part of the 2013 Community Voices class, allowing her to combine a passion for storytelling and love of public radio. She started out as a volunteer at the radio station, creating the weekly WYSO Community Calendar and co-producing Women’s Voices from the Dayton Correctional Institution - winner of the 2017 PRINDI award for best long-form documentary. She also had the top two highest ranked stories on the WYSO website in one year with Why So Curious features. Renee produced WYSO’s series County Lines which takes listeners down back roads and into small towns throughout southwestern Ohio, and created Agraria’s Grounded Hope podcast exploring the past, present and future of agriculture in Ohio through a regenerative lens. Her stories have been featured on NPR, Harvest Public Media and Indiana Public Radio.