Bison are back and suburban Not-so-rural ranges: Suburbanites are making pets of the 1-ton, unpredictable horned animals popularly known as buffalo.

November 04, 1995|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,SUN STAFF

Nearly exterminated from the Great Plains a century ago, American bison have made such a remarkable comeback that they have become a fixture in Maryland's suburbs.

Dozens of the shaggy, heavy-chested beasts -- secure behind well-fenced enclosures -- have established a foothold in Anne Arundel, Carroll, Harford, Howard and Baltimore counties.

Suburbanites with farmettes keep the 1-ton, unpredictable horned animals as pets. Farmers have discovered that the bison -- popularly known as buffalo -- can literally and figuratively run circles around beef cattle when it comes to hardiness and low-fat, low-cholesterol meat.

"I was born and bred in the city, so it's all new to me," says Phyllis Olinger, a resident of Marriottsville in Howard County. But her husband, Ron, developed an affection for bison as a teen-ager in Oklahoma and finally bought a pair of them three years ago.

Now the couple have six bison and a small herd of cattle roaming their front yard in Marriottsville -- across the street from a planned 682-acre commercial and residential development.

When the new development is built, Mr. Olinger -- who is part Cherokee -- says he wants to build a "trading post," to sell Native American and western crafts and artifacts. Many such items, such as buffalo skulls and bison-decorated knick-knacks, decorate his basement.

And his buffalo are striking a high profile.

"You can say to anybody: 'There's buffalo living across the street,' and they don't believe you," says Meredith Jones, who lives across Marriottsville Road from the Olingers. "They want to come over and look at them."

Of course, the Olingers' animals -- Buffy, Bully and the rest of the small herd -- aren't the first bison to settle in the Baltimore-Washington suburbs. Records show that George Washington kept a small herd at Mount Vernon, says Karen Sekich, executive director of the Denver-based National Bison Association.

The American bison technically is not a buffalo, a name that first was applied to Asian water buffalo and African cape buffalo. However, both "buffalo" and "bison" can be used to describe the North American animal, according to the National Bison Association.

The bison kept by George Washington two centuries ago likely were remnants of the dwindling bison herds that lived in Maryland and other colonies, most of which were killed off by the time of the Revolution.

In the 19th century, killing bison on the Great Plains had become a business, a sport and, historians contend, a policy to control Native Americans who depended upon the animal. Estimated to have numbered 60 million at one time, the bison population dropped to the hundreds by the 1890s.

Since the early 1900s, national parks and private owners have protected the bison, and the herds have increased steadily. Now numbering about 150,000, bison have become trendy, or their symbolism and their more healthful meat, which can sell for twice what beef costs.

And how else could Paul Hines, a farmer from Harford County, get to rub elbows with the likes of Ted Turner and Jane Fonda?

The Churchville resident rode his herd of 18 bison to membership in the American Bison Association, one of the two groups that formed the National Bison Association in January. Mr. Turner, although not a board member, is believed to own the world's largest bison herd, numbering more than 7,000 on his land in Montana.

Mr. Hines has become something of Central Maryland's bison answer man. When a Salvation Army summer camp in Monkton sought to keep a pair of the animals that had been donated, he was the person they called.

His advice was the same that he would give to any would-be suburban buffalo owner: Keep them in groups, give them lots of space -- and love them through a high, strong fence.

He learned that the hard way, by being attacked while posing for a photograph with "Big Daddy," his herd's late patriarch.

"We know a man who had a bull he trained from a calf in Kansas," Mr. Hines says. "It was a 'pet' for five years -- and one day it turned on him and killed him. I don't need my name in the paper in that fashion."

Mr. Olinger says he's comfortable going inside his fences to feed his bison. "A lot of people think they're scary or something, but they're not."

Mrs. Olinger is more cautious: "They're pretty nice, they're pretty tame. I myself don't jump in there and try to pet them."

But some of the Olingers' neighbors are concerned that the animals' enclosure might not hold the massive, agile beasts.

"I wonder if there will be a time when they'll be standing on Marriottsville Road" staring down a queue of curious commuters, says Ms. Jones.

Bison are adept at jumping fences made to hold cattle and, once loose, are not easy to catch. One recent entrant into the bison brotherhood, Gary Bloom, who lives in the town of Street in Harford County, lost one of his four bison to pranksters who left a gate open. It was later shot in Delta, Pa., four miles away.

Two bison escaped from a farm in Birdsville in Anne Arundel County in the winter of 1992 and eluded police, animal control officials and wildlife experts for more than two weeks until their owner was forced to shoot them.

But with the proper precautions -- such as a high-tensile wire fence, at least 5 feet high -- buffalo husbandry can be a rewarding experience, Mr. Hines says.

That's why the National Bison Association lists 11 active members in Maryland, from Potomac to Laurel to Pocomoke City. Mr. Hines knows of three new bison owners in the past few months.

Hans Wilhelmsen Jr. is no newcomer, however. The 30-year-old Phoenix resident, who has a herd of 20, grew up with the animals.

"We have it as preservation of the American heritage," he said, explaining that his father was a Norwegian immigrant and bought the animals in gratitude for what the country had done for him. "It's not a commercial business. They are strictly a pleasure animal."

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