Where the bison roam

CNJ Staff Photo: Marlena Hartz
The outlines of bison kept at Ned Houk Park are illuminated during sunset.

By Marlena Hartz: CNJ staff writer

Far from the pens of the Hillcrest Zoo, 10 shaggy bison roam along the banks of Ned Houk Park in Clovis.

The plot of land at Ned Houk, enclosed by barbed wire, has been home to the small American bison herd for about 20 years, according to Hillcrest Zoo Curator Mark Yannotti.

The herd would feel claustrophobic if housed at the zoo, Yannotti said. So, zoo employees found their bison somewhere more suitable.

“It is much more like their natural habitat. They are an animal that is originally from the open plains,” Yannotti said.

A cow and a bull are kept at the zoo, while three males and seven females are kept at Ned Houk.

Thursday afternoon, the Ned Houk herd clustered in a northern corner of their grazing plot. Just silhouettes against a blue sky, they ambled along the pasture with their heads bowed toward the grass — made lush by recent rains. The animals — icons of a bygone American era — are strangely graceful, considering their massive humps and toothpick legs.

After more than a decade of caring for the animals, Ned Houk Park Superintendent John Meier has come to know them well. Meier, or a member of his three-person staff, feeds the animals every morning, although zoo keepers also regularly check up on the herd.

The Ned Houk bison diet: Alfalfa hay and milo, as well as any forage gleaned from their plot.

Meier compares the Ned Houk tenants to a family.

“They stick together,” he said.

Usually, the herd is mild-mannered and passive, he said. But cows are fiercely protective of their young, and bulls frequently fight for the alpha position in a herd, he said.

The bison grab their fair share of spectators, Meier said.

“Not a day goes by that someone isn’t out there watching them,” he said.

The zoo animals, he believes, are content in their un-zoo-like home.

“(The park) is an excellent spot for them,” Meier said.

“They’re happy there,” he said.