Thundering out of Iowa's distant past, the herd of bison at the Prairie Heritage Center northwest of Peterson has developed quite a following.
"It has been a great experience to have them out here. There has been a lot of interest from folks. Even after the hours at the center we have visitors who come by quite often to watch them and check up on them," says O'Brien County Naturalist Charlene Elyea.
On June 26, a male calf was born on site, bringing the current herd to five. The center maintains the herd at between four and seven animals, which is what the available range pasture will feed.
"We do some trading out from time to time for the sake of the bloodlines. We traded out our old bull and brought a new one in," Elyea says.
It is also necessary to do "herd management" from time to time, which is a nice way of saying that an animal is slaughtered on occasion.
"We have a bison burger feast fundraiser each August. If people haven't tried bison before, they should check it out - it's delicious."
After several years of learning about the animals, the staff now lives pretty much in harmony with the powerful animals.
"With bison, the oldest female is always in charge, and that is certainly the case here. They are pretty protective. They are placid most of the time and people can get a pretty up-close look at them, but if you get into their space, they let out a big snort and you will know about it," Elyea says.
"They know those of us who work with them, and are quite comfortable with us. They do a lot of 'talking' to us."
There have never been any problems between humans and the bison, although the naturalist recalls one close call. "This made my heart skip a beat. It was winter and some snowmobilers had ridden into the area in all their gear. The bull was curious and trotted up to check it out. With the full suit and helmet on, I don't think he recognized it as a man. The snowmobiler obviously didn't realize the meaning of the reactions the animal was giving off, but I sure did. He was getting very anxious, and let out a big snort."
Luckily, the staff was able to separate snowmobilers from bison before the visitors received a 2,000 pound education.
The bison have such a relationship with their handlers that they recognize the truck of Elyea's boss, who often brings them apples or other treats. In one instance he had been gone to a conference for a few days, and when his truck was approaching from a distance, the bison spotted it from their grazing spot in the far southwest corner of the property, and the entire group came running full tilt to catch up to the truck and run alongside to welcome their friend home.
"To be honest, the herd is capable of taking care of itself," Elyea says. "They really don't need our help, but we are kind of soft on them, so they get a lot of extra attention." A full-grown animal eats about 25 pounds of grass a day and drinks at least five gallons of water - but in the winter their consumption goes way down. Even a newborn calf needs little special care. "Those mommas know what to do," Elyea explains.
Clearly the main attraction at the center, visitors have come this year from all but six U.S. states and 14 countries. "We had a gentlemen from Germany who couldn't take his eyes off them. He just sat and stared - the whole concept of open prairie spaces was just entirely foreign to anything he has ever experienced," the naturalist said.
What's new this year at the center? Plenty.
A new covered wagon exhibit has been built outside the center, and is open to the public even when the facility is closed.
A family donated an authentic wagon that their pioneer ancestors had used to travel through Iowa into South Dakota. The staff restored it to original condition, thanks to a grant fro the county foundation, and added some hands-on interactive exhibits. The final touch was to hook the wagon to a pair of full-size aluminum oxen sculptures done by a central Iowa artist.
"We've had several groups of school kids out here to see it," Elyea said. "What they remark about most is the size. The wagon is only 38 inches across, and that was standard size for the period. It's amazing how people made the journeys that they did."
An exhibit on birds is currently showing in the lower level of the center, and a new show on geology will go into place later this season.
Some new special events are being planned for early in 2013, and on March 11, a traveling exhibition from the Smithsonian on prairie and farming history will make an exciting addition to the center.