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People & Pets

Bison, elk roam free

7/3/2024

What was it like in Iowa’s prairie land before fast-food joints, strip malls and towering developments began pouring concrete and constructing buildings?

To find out, drive to Granger and take a step back in time to discover a herd of elk and bison at the Jester Park Elk and Bison Educational Plaza. 

In the park, eight bison and eight elk can be viewed behind tall fences. 

David Weidt, Polk County Conservation Ranger and Jester Park herd manager, explains why Polk County opened the park in the 1970s. 

“Elk and bison used to roam Iowa. Wild bison are hard to come by and were nearly extinct. It’s a good reminder of how Iowa used to be,” he says. 

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The last time wild elk roamed free was centuries ago. Bison are migratory and often don’t stay in one area. 

“They won’t be around, as Polk County is running out of natural land,” he explains. 

The bison and elk live in pastures with 24-hour access to food. With three separate 10-acre pastures, the animals rotate while the pastures grow.  Most times, the two animals aren’t in the same pasture. 

“Bison are not good at sharing,” he explains. “We have to split them up.”

In the winter, they feed on hay, corn and other supplements. Last year’s draught prevented a full pasture to graze on. 

“We couldn’t keep up. They were eating a bale of hay every four days until the pasture grew back.”

Jester Park welcomes one million visitors a year. The public can view information at the educational plaza or visit select times for free when staff is feeding the animals. 

“When we have babies, it’s very busy out here,” he explains. 

However, when the animals have too many offsprings, they’ll trade out males to limit births. The animals will go to other counties in Iowa.

As herd manager, Weidt is familiar with the animals’ temperament and behavior. Multiple, double-locked fences prevent the animals from getting out. After he combined herds of bison from a private ranch, they became territorial. 

“We hoped it would calm down and had to change our interactions with them. We make sure we have a vehicle between me and an animal if they charge us. They don’t tolerate (humans) being next to them,” he says. “We’ve had numerous trucks dented if we got too close.”

Elk are more tolerant of humans, except during mating season; however, they’re known to charge the fence as well.

The animals are inspected routinely by both the USDA and by the Iowa Department of Ag Land Stewardship and monitored for chronic wasting disease, a fatal neurological disease affecting hooved animals. 

When people visit, park rangers are available to answer questions. 

“Younger kids tend to be in awe,” he says. “When people see bison up close, they’re surprised how agile they are for their size. Bison weigh up to 2,000 pounds.” 

Weidt has been a park ranger for 15 years with the last seven at Jester. He enjoys outdoor work, and being a herd manager is unique. 

“You raise them all year. You feel like a proud papa when babies are born. You want to make sure they’re cared for,” he reflects. “It’s quite exciting.” 

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Summer Stir - July 2024