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San Francisco's bison herd | Bartell's Backroad

How a pair of bison in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park helped save the American Bison population from extinction.

SAN FRANCISCO — At first glance San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park looks like any other park. It’s got trees, grass and lots of walking paths, but there is one area of the park that gets a lot of looks.

It’s known as the Bison Paddock, which is a fancy term for “fenced area,” and it regularly surprises passing tourists.

“Yes! We see tourists pretty much every day from all over the world interested in the bison,” said Amy Phelps, who is one of the many caretakers at the Bison Paddock.

Although the bison are cared for by San Francisco Zoo staff, they’ve never really been part of the zoo. The Bison Paddock is part of a centuries old conservation project.

“Bison in general are absolutely a conservation story. They were literally hunted to extinction,” said Phelps.

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Hollywood taught us to call them buffalo, but their true name is the American Bison and during the colonization of the West, pioneers and the U.S. Army slaughtered millions of bison. 

“In part for hide and meat, and also part of the really awful things we did to Native Americans,” said Phelps.

As part of the American Indian Wars, the U.S. government encouraged people to kill bison to reduce the food for Native Americans. By 1889, the species nearly went extinct with a population of fewer than 1,000 bison.

“In 1891, the old park superintendent brought in one male and one female,” said Phelps.

In an effort to save the American Bison, park superintendent John McLaren started a breeding program. Over the years, more than 500 calves were born and it literally saved the species from extinction.

“They’ve come a long way but the only free roaming bison now exist in conservation areas where they are protected,” said Phelps.

Though they are fed by humans, the Golden Gate Bison are very much wild. If you are wondering, yes, the Golden Gate Park Bison have escaped a handful of times since they were put here. One notable escape happened in 1899 and involved a bull bison trampling a park ranger and goring and killing his horse.

There was another major escape in 1942 where bison ran through the streets and the last reported escape was in 1995. Since then, the fencing has been updated.

“There’s multiple layers of fencing so even if a tree did fall and took out a layer of fence, the bison couldn’t get out,” said Phelps.

Bison are not native to San Francisco but today there are healthy herds in a number of National Parks and many large populations maintained by private breeders thanks to the conservation efforts that happened right here in Golden Gate Park.

MORE BISON ON THE BACKROADS: Historically, Northern California was not typically known as "bison country," but Black Butte Bison Ranch begs to differ as bison roam the grassland of Tehama County, just outside Corning. 

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