Early in the new Ken Burns’ documentary “The American Buffalo,” a map depicting the national mammal’s native range dips down into Florida. While the state never had huge herds like out west, these free-roaming, majestic animals lived in Florida for many thousands of years before the species faced extinction in the late 19th century.
As “The American Buffalo” airs this week on PBS, a bison herd roams in North Central Florida at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park.
“While many visitors are aware that they may see bison within the park, they still surprise those who don’t expect to see them in Florida,” said Brian Miller, press secretary at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
In 1971, Paynes Prairie became the Sunshine State’s first state preserve. In 1975, state officials relocated 10 bison – the scientifically correct name for North America’s largest living mammal – from the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma to honor the historical range.
Local nature and adventure guide Lars Andersen, author of the book “Paynes Prairie: A History of the Great Savannah,” said historically, Florida was home to a meager population of bison.
“There were some big grazers in the eastern United States where the Native Americans were relying on them a lot and keeping the populations pretty low when Europeans first arrived,” Andersen said.
In the 1600s, Andersen said, Paynes Prairie had the highest density of bison in the region. By 1774, explorer and botanist William Bartram visited Paynes Prairie and did not note any bison in his extensive descriptions of plants, animals and native people.
“Not long after Bartram was here, the bison population was starting to go back down,” Andersen said. “Since more white settlers arrived, the trend reversed by putting pressure on the bison by hunting them down.”
After Paynes Prairie became a state park, managers worked to restore native plants and animals modeled on pre-European settlement.
The Ken Burns film is a biography of the American bison and its relationship to the Indigenous people of North America. Burns describes it as “a morality tale encompassing two historically significant lessons that resonate today: how humans can damage the natural world and also how we can work together to make choices to preserve the environment around us.”
Numbering an estimated 30 million in the early 1800s, the nation’s bison declined to fewer than 1,000 by the late 19th century. The film also tells the story about the people who set out to save the species from extinction and how they did it. Today there are approximately 350,000 bison in the United States, and their numbers are increasing.
To visit the herd at Paynes Prairie, Miller recommended the best place to view bison in the prairie basin is from the park’s 50-foot-high observation tower by the visitor center at dawn. Visitors also may spot the park’s wild horses. Visitors can also hike to the basin via several different trails – Cones Dike, Bolen Bluff and La Chua – located in the park.
“The American Buffalo” continues tonight on PBS at 8 p.m. Viewers can watch it on WUFT locally or stream it on their own schedule on the PBS app.