Strange journey delivers prairie bison to new homes
Published: Saturday, July 6, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, July 5, 2013 at 11:35 p.m.
A little more than a year ago, cowboys on horses and in helicopters descended on Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park to round up more than two dozen shaggy American icons.
The Florida Park Service had determined the bison herd the agency had long ago introduced to the 21,000 acres had outgrown the home they were brought to roam.
And there were safety concerns. Twice in 2010, officials said, male bison — which can stand 6 feet tall and top out at 2,200 pounds — left the prairie and were shot and killed after charging at park workers.
In late February, cowboys gathered 26 adult bulls and hauled them to a ranch in High Springs, whose owner had agreed with the state's intention that the bison be allowed to live out their natural lives and not be slaughtered and sold for meat.
But that was merely a request, not a contractual obligation. Once the bison left the park, the state no longer had any say in the matter.
A year later, the protests by animal rights activists on behalf of the bison have faded. A reduced herd of female bison and castrated young bison continues to meander across the savannah without any way to propagate.
But whatever became of the 26 transplanted bison? Did they become retired bachelors, or burgers?
Two of the five ranches that were supposed to receive the transplanted bison don't have any. More than a dozen are at a ranch in South Florida that was never part of the original plan.
All are still alive, their new owners say, and will be allowed to live free and mate whenever the spirit moves them.
How they got to their new homes, however, is a tale of a state plan that began on shaky footing and finally came together by happenstance.
* * *
Go north on Interstate 75, down a few side roads and stop when you see the zebras.
Water buffalo chew and stare. Two kangaroos sleep in the shade. Four camels graze in the grass, and a bright macaw squawks from its tiny tree-limb perch.
David Hajos, owner of Gateway Farms in High Springs, loves his mob of misfits. Hajos grew up around exotic animals and always dreamed of maintaining an eclectic farm.
When state officials announced plans to cull the Paynes Prairie bison herd, Hajos eagerly submitted his proposal.
According to his bid, the bulls he would gather would be sent to five different ranches, one of which was his and another that belongs to his father.
Hajos requested to be paid $365 per bison while other bidders asked for about $2,000 each, putting him in a good spot for final selection.
His proposal identified five recipients for the bison he would collect:
* Hajos' own Gateway Farms of Lake City, McAlpin and High Springs.
* Marvin Hajos, David's father, in Rhome, Texas.
* Bob Campbell of Gap Creek Ranch in Manatee County.
* Jerry Holly of Bellfield Farms, in both Micanopy and Maryland.
* Rodney Pickler of Southern Copper Buffalo in North Carolina.
Hajos' proximity to Paynes Prairie, years of experience with exotic animals, logistic capabilities and low price helped him win the state contract.
Things soon began unraveling.
* * *
Before Hajos knew about the bison removal plan, Pickler said he had noticed an ad for it in the National Bison Association magazine.
The Florida Park Service and Florida's Department of Environmental Protection were reaching out to current herd owners across the nation, offering up the bulls for free if the ranchers came and removed them.
"In my mind, it was a handout," Pickler said. "I thought, ‘Oh, I can back up a trailer and grab three or four.' "
After responding to the advertisement, Pickler said he realized the state was in over its head.
"We don't know how we're gonna handle this," Pickler said a state official told him.
So he backed off.
The state removed the ad, and after more deliberation on the logistics of the plan, officials opened the door for structured proposals for removing the bison.
This time, it wouldn't be for free. Ranchers were encouraged to name their price per bison removed, and depending on budget and qualifications, the state would select one bidder.
Pickler said he decided to drop out of the deal because of delays and the protests that were starting as word of the roundup began to spread.
He added that it wasn't worth the time and effort to go all the way to Florida to get the bison for his North Carolina operation.
"It didn't make sense to me," Pickler said. "I can get all the bison I want 50 to 100 miles away from my home."
* * *
Campbell, of Gap Creek Ranch, said he and Hajos initially agreed that he would receive one bison.
Campbell, however, is not the ranch's owner; he is a caretaker and has worked on the ranch for years. After the deal was made, the ranch owner's health deteriorated — as did the deal.
"He never got back to us," Campbell said of Hajos. "I didn't opt out — the deal just fizzled out after waiting and waiting."
* * *
Jim Fraser of Peat Marsh Ranch in Okeechobee wound up with 10 of the bison — and he still doesn't completely understand how it happened.
"I don't really know the ins and outs of the whole thing," he said.
Fraser's involvement began when, unbeknownst to him, Hajos listed him as a reference on his bid. He said a state official called him to ask about Hajos' experience.
Fraser has been a friend of Marvin Hajos, David's father, for many years. According to Hajos' bid, Gateway Farms helps with the yearly roundup of bison at Peat Marsh Ranch.
Though the call was unexpected, he detailed Hajos' knowledge of bison and other exotic animals.
With other ranches backing out as the roundup got underway, Hajos contacted Fraser.
"I don't know how the conversation went, but I told him I had room and took them in," Fraser said.
Fraser said the bison bulls now roam free with his cattle on a 330-acre farm. He said he plans to begin breeding a strain of "beefalo" in due time.
* * *
Another 13 bulls were given to Jerry Holly, one of the original listed recipients on the proposal.
Holly said when he initially received the bulls, he brought some to his Marlboro, Md., property and left the remainder on his Micanopy ranch.
But after a few months of heavy humidity and summer heat, he decided to move all of the bulls to Maryland.
"I don't know why people want buffalo in Florida where they huff and pant," Holly said. "They looked like they were gonna blow my house down."
Holly said he intends to keep and breed the bison once he's able to get some buffalo cows. In the meantime, they will remain free roaming on his ranch in Maryland.
"That was the deal with David," Holly said. "He said, ‘If I give them to you, you need to keep them.' "
So far, they seem to be thriving in their northern climate.
"They like the cold," he said.
* * *
The three remaining bulls are still owned by Hajos, but they are in Texas on a breeder loan he arranged. Hajos declined to give the name of the private farm he loaned them too, citing "slaughter rumors" and "bad press" in the past.
Marvin Hajos' ranch in Rhome, Texas, was one of the original recipients. David Hajos said there is some friction between himself and his father, but he would not say if it was in any way related to the Paynes Prairie bison.
However, David Hajos said that by February 2014, the bulls would return to his property in High Springs.
* * *
A combination of 54 female bison and castrated male calves are the only remnants of the original herd still on Paynes Prairie, Park Manager David Jowers said.
He said that although the removed bulls didn't end up in all of the places listed in the proposal, the park's main concern was that they didn't get sold for slaughter.
"Our issue was that they remain in sanctuary," Jowers said.
The head of the Florida Park Service last year mentioned that the state might bring in a bull bison to mate with the Paynes Prairie females, which could ease concerns about inbreeding among the small herd.
Jowers said that suggestion has since been dropped.
While most, if not all, of the 26 evicted bulls will be used for stud purposes until they die, the Paynes Prairie herd will consist of females and sterile males.
"Florida Park Service has chosen to have a non-reproducing herd," Jowers said.