Bison herd’s ancestors were Disney stars

Baby bison are bounding around William S. Hart County Park in Newhall – but if you want to see one, hurry up.

By the end of the year, their orange-tinged fur will turn brown and they will look like the rest of their older brethren.

Plus, the female bison aren't likely to have any more calves in the near future since the herd's only bull, known as "No. 22," was castrated last year.

"This is so special for the public," said Debbie Pepe, who cares for the herd of 16. "It is priceless."

The ancestors of the Hart Park herd were a gift from cartoonist and moviemaker Walt Disney. After the herd starred in "Westward Ho, The Wagons!" Disney donated them to the park in 1962.

In keeping with Newhall's Western traditions, they arrived at the park after being herded through downtown streets.

The animals couldn't be returned to the wild because they were used to being around humans and were subject to strict government regulation, said Norm Phillips, Hart Park's regional park superintendent.

The original herd members have died, but one of them is still hanging around: Clyde has his head mounted on a wall inside the park's ranch house.

The descendents of Disney's herd roam on 25 acres, grazing on grass and munching on grain and hay that Pepe and fellow caretaker Manuel Saldivar provide.

On a recent Wednesday, Saldivar stood in the back of a county pickup truck throwing hay and grain to the waiting


He admitted that at first he was scared of the animals that, according to Pepe, can run 35 miles an hour and jump as high as six feet.

But he soon got over his fear.

"You get used to them and how they are," Saldivar said. "In time, you love them."

While Saldivar has been working with the bison for about five months, Pepe has been their caretaker for more than two years.

Plus, the Newhall native has practically grown up with them.

"I used to come to this park in a stroller," she said.

Bison – which can weigh as much as 2,000 pounds – are often mistakenly called buffalo, but they are their own distinct animal.

During the 1600s and 1700s, bison were plentiful on the Great Plains, with numbers reaching as high as 70 million, said Jim Matheson, assistant director of the National Bison Association, a bison industry trade group based in Westminster, Colo.

"They evolved with the North American landscape," he said. "You are looking at a piece of history when you look at a bison."

Toward the late 1800s, with the population shift toward the Western states, he said, the number of bison dropped to under 1,000. That was when public conservation efforts began.

Now the number of bison has increased to about 500,000, grazing on private ranches and public lands throughout the United States and Canada, he said.

Bison roam at Yellowstone National Park and at several Southern California spots.

Camp Pendleton has a herd estimated at between 100 and 150. The San Diego Zoo needed a home for some bison in the early 1970s and 14 ended up on the U.S. Marine Corps base.

Santa Catalina Island has 183 bison making up its herd. In the 1920s, 14 bison were brought to the island for a silent film called "The Vanishing American."

"They never showed up in the movie," said Bob Rhein, a spokesman for the Catalina Island Conservancy, which cares for much of the island – and the majority of the bison. "They ended up on the cutting-room floor."

At Hart Park, some of the bison have names, but others are identified only by ear-tag numbers.

Grandma has a broken horn and her tag is on backwards. Buffy is the bison who had twins.

Two female babies – Logan and Heart – were born last year and four babies arrived this year – Bella, Spot, Ray and one still unnamed.

The park's acreage should only accommodate 10 bison, so park officials are trying to prevent further population growth.

The male calves will be castrated when they come of age, between 6 months and a year, Phillips said.

"We are limiting the herd to what we have," Pepe said. "That is plenty for this area."

When the herd eventually dwindles to 10, park officials will decide whether to bring in another bull.

Visitors can see the bison from behind fences on park trails, Pepe said. She suggests coming before 9 a.m., when they are being fed and feeling frisky.

"I encourage people to come out and take a peek at them," Phillips said. "…It's amazing the things you didn't realize were in your backyard."


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