ALDA, Neb. — In the last few weeks, 16 of the genetically pure bison at the Crane Trust have experienced the joys of motherhood. The stork —or perhaps a sandhill crane — will bring up to five more baby bison this spring.
In the world of bison, calving season begins in April and can run into early June.
Forty-one genetically pure bison arrived at the Crane Trust near Alda in early 2015. Aided by births this year and last, the population is now up to 73. If the five bison heifers deliver as scheduled, the herd will total 78.
A bison delivery doesn’t require any human help.
“We don’t have to intervene in any way. It’s all done naturally. We don’t have to pull any calves,” said Timothy Smith, Crane Trust land manager.
If you’re interested in seeing bison give birth, you have to watch from a distance.
“We watch to see if there’s a cow that might slip off on her own, away from the herd. That usually is an indicator that she’s calving. Then once she’s done, she’ll bring the calf back to the herd,” Smith told The Grand Island Independent (http://bit.ly/2q8a3Y2 ).
After arriving, it doesn’t take baby bison very long to stand up.
“Within minutes they’re up on their feet,” Smith said.
A baby bison weighs 50 to 60 pounds, which is quite a bit different from mom and dad. A bison bull weighs close to 2,000 pounds. The cows weigh 900 to 1,000 pounds, Smith said.
The gestation period for a bison is about 285 days. Bison do their mating in August and September.
A year ago, the Crane Trust herd gave birth to seven baby bison. The number increased this year because more heifers are of breeding age. In addition, a bison heifer doesn’t have a baby every year, Smith said. Sometimes, they go every other year.
The oldest animals in the Crane Trust herd are about 10 years old.
Among other things, Crane Trust personnel are studying the impact the bison population has on the ecosystem.
“We’re looking at it on a small scale,” Smith said. “How does it affect the small mammals that use the prairie? How does it change the vegetation? Do we get different wildflowers, different grasses, that type of thing?”
The bison are grazing on 800 acres at the Crane Trust. Seven of the animals are near the Crane Trust Nature and Visitor Center. Those bison may sometimes be seen from Interstate 80 or by people walking on the trail just behind the visitor center.
Things are going well with the bison project, said Brice Krohn, Crane Trust vice president.
“Where we are today is almost better than where we hoped to be when we first started out with our bison,” Krohn said.
The Crane Trust obtained four bison in 2012, on loan from Randy Miller of Adams. That number later grew to 12 before those animals were returned to Miller and the trust bought its own herd.
Since that herd arrived at the Crane Trust, three of the animals have died. Seventeen bulls have also moved to different owners — Miller and two others. Those bison are not always sold, Krohn said. They’re sometimes distributed to build relationships and test the waters for future projects. The Crane Trust also plans to work with other partners and organizations in the future.
Bison don’t really have that much in common with cattle, Smith said.
Bison are more self-sufficient. Crane Trust personnel need to handle the animals only once a year, for vaccinations. If necessary, they’ll be given hay, but that would only be in rare circumstances.
The bison diet is heavier on grass than cattle’s, Smith said. Grasses make up 90 percent or more of the food bison consume. A cow’s diet consists of 60 percent to 70 percent grass. The rest is made up of forbs, such as wildflowers.
Bison, though, don’t exchange wildflowers during the courtship process.
Bison are bred to survive on the prairie, Smith said. During the winter, their metabolism slows way down. They are “incredibly efficient” at deriving nutrients still in a plant, even when it’s dormant.
Cold weather doesn’t “faze them one bit,” he said. When temperatures drop, they are in their element.
The arrival of frigid conditions means they’re just starting to feel good, Smith said.
Information from: The Grand Island Independent, http://www.theindependent.com
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