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Where the Marines (and buffalo) roam

Camp Pendleton is an unusual site for the herd of nearly 150. Now, base wildlife officials want to properly manage the bison.

CAMP PENDLETON – After rumbling up and down some dirt roads in a Ford Explorer, through training areas in the rolling grasslands of the central part of this sprawling U.S. Marine base, Eric Kershner has spotted a special herd.


The Orange County Register

He now stands peering through binoculars at the dark brown shapes in the distance, about a quarter-mile away, across grass the sun has baked gold, near a clump of coastal live oak trees.

"There's some young animals in there," he assesses. "Looks mostly like a cow calf herd."

Under a blue sky, the acorn woodpecker's calls are punctuated by the muffled sounds of Marine helicopter blades somewhere in the distance as Kershner brings visitors up close to the nine bison, at once a majestic and surreal site, in part because the iconic buffalo are in the most unusual of places – a military base in Southern California.

One adult bison with a bowed left front leg uneasily eyes the visitors now some 25-30 feet away, while some of the others continue to forage in the dry grass. Near a natural spring pond, not too far away, Kershner, a wildlife biologist and head of Camp Pendleton's environmental security, spotted a herd of 94 not too long ago.

"To me they just symbolize the American West," Kershner says, "Something pretty intriguing about a herd of 1,000 of them rumbling across the prairie."


Kershner says the number of bison at Camp Pendleton stands at about 147, having multiplied from about a dozen the San Diego Zoo gave to the base in the mid-1970s. Left alone to roam freely, the bison generally have kept to 38,000 acres in the central part of the 125,000-acre base.

The buffalo sometime wander into target range, forcing Marines to curtail training and use air horns to scare them away. The base is also home to 347 bird species and 75 mammal species.

Now, base wildlife officials have contacted geneticists at Texas A&M; University to figure out if the bison at the base may be of a rare genetically pure strain. And, testing will help biologists more proactively manage the herd.

"This herd is essentially unmanaged," Kershner says. "I want to get to the point of proper management of the herd as opposed to no management. We just want to make sure that they're a good population."

James Derr, professor of veterinary pathobiology at Texas A&M;, says tests will look at the level of genetic diversity in the Pendleton herd, which equates to its long-term health.

A genetically diverse herd has a better chance of surviving environmental insults, like disease and change in habitat, he says. "If you have long term inbreeding, then you can loose genetic variation (which puts) their ability to survive in the future in question," Derr says.


Early indicators, although far from definitive, from blood testing on two Pendleton bison – an 8-year-old cow and a 3-year-old bull – show the herd is disease free, with no heavy metals in their system despite being on a military base, and have no signs of inbreeding.

"Everything came back very good and they seem to be very healthy animals," Derr says.

Researchers will know more when about 10 of the bison have been tested. A report is expected early next year.

If it turns out that base bison – more the plains bison variety than their smaller counterpart, the woods bison – are genetically pure, it would place them in an elite group of only three such herds nationwide; the other two are at Wind Cave and Yellowstone national parks.

Most bison in the United States have at some point been bred with cattle to make them more palatable for human consumption.

Last week, the Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne announced an initiative to work with state, tribal and agricultural interests to strengthen bison conservation efforts to help the species recover and thrive.

"One of the classic symbols of the American frontier is the image of vast herds of bison grazing on the western plains," Kempthorne said in a statement. "Americans today still find inspiration in bison ranging freely on the landscape, as Yellowstone National Park demonstrates."


Because of over hunting, the number of bison in North America fell from the millions to a few hundred by the late 1800s, pushing the species to the brink of extinction. In the early 1900s, Bison restoration began at Yellowstone, according to the American Bison Society.

The majority of the more than 500,000 plains bison in North America, most of them privately owned, are in herds of less than 1,000 that are fenced within relatively small areas, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior, which now manages almost 7,000 bison in seven national wildlife refuges and five national parks.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.