Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Wild About "The Wilds"

If you live in Ohio or plan to visit and you have any interest in conservation, you really must see a unique park in Muskingum County called The Wilds.” My family and I toured The Wilds last weekend, and I wanted to share part of our trip with you.

In the 60’s and 70’s, a large portion of eastern Ohio was mined for coal. Not your cinematic “How Green Was My Valley” deep shaft mining, mind you, but surface mining, specifically strip mining. In this process, large, heavy machines called draglines literally stripped the topsoil from the earth to reveal the seams of bituminous coal beneath, then the power plants removed the coal to feed our need for electricity.

Prior to the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977, the decimated mining fields were left in their ravaged state, as if a giant earth-eating dragon had blasted the green hills and valleys, ingesting the plants and the soil and vomiting up rocks and debris. After 1977, power companies were required to reclaim the land, to return it to something approximating its original condition.

Nothing could bring back the hills, topsoil, and trees that were consumed by the energy monster, but the American Electric Power company did try to salvage what they could, by contouring the land, bringing in some topsoil (albeit not nearly enough) and by planting quick-growing plants that would help prevent erosion. The result is a huge rolling grassland, pocked by ponds that were formerly "strip pits," unlike anything else in Ohio. The soil, unfortunately, was not rich enough to grow plants with any nutritional value, and what was planted were mostly non-native, invasive aliens like Autumn Olive, but it was a start.

This land, nearly 10,000 acres of it, was donated by AEP in the mid 1980's and turned into The Wilds, a wildlife preserve open to the public since 1994 and dedicated to "advancing conservation through science, education, and personal experience." The organization is removing the invasive plants, improving soil fertility (with composted manure from the grassland species they protect) and investing in the future lives of many threatened and endangered animals.

This is the result of years of reclamation, rehabilitation, and careful management.
View from the Johnson Visitor Center, The Wilds

Our trip started at the Visitor Center ...

...where we boarded this open air bus and got the "mean" lecture:
"Pretend there is glass in these window frames and don't stick your hands outside. These are wild animals and they bite. If you are standing up during a stop, and I say 'Sit down now!' or 'Move to the middle of the bus,' do it. These are wild animals and they can be unpredictable." Despite all the warnings, we were not attacked by anything. I was a little disappointed.

Our first stop was for the Persian Onagers. Like animals in war zones throughout the world, these wild horses, natives of Iran, have been victims of human conflict. There are fewer than 400 animals remaining in the wild, and The Wilds has the largest captive breeding population.

The dorsal stripe which is easily seen in this photo, is a classic characteristic found on wild horse species.

Later, we were able to compare the onagers to another wild equine, the Przewalski's (say it "zhe-val-skee's") Horse from the steppes of Mongolia. This species is reportedly quite mean, so much so that when they introduce a new male into the bachelor herd, the entire group has to be sedated for 6 weeks till they adapt.
This small herd of mares and foals was very close to our bus, and the guide mentioned several times how vicious they can be, pointing out the scars where they had bitten each other. No one on the bus put their hands out through the invisible window panes to test this statement.

You can see I was enamored by the two foals, a filly and a colt.
Young female Przewalski's horse

And the little colt.
Note the scar from a bite wound on the dam's side.

Notice again a dorsal stripe and also the striping on the back of the front legs, reminiscent of the markings on zebas. Wild horses the world over share these traits, and most are this same dun (grulla) color as well.

After the onagers, we visited the bison. Our guide explained that the only true wild bison left in America is a small herd in Yellowstone; that all other bison herds have experienced some degree of domestication when they were selectively bred for size or meat production.

One of the neat things about their large bison population is the bachelor herd. As a security precaution, all the exotic animals at The Wilds must be enclosed behind a double set of fences. Because bison were once found in Ohio, they are considered to be natives, not exotics, and so only need to be kept behind one fence. The bachelor herd lives in the field between the inner and outer fences, thus utilizing the large amount of the property around the perimeter.
This herd of females includes several calves anywhere from a few days old to 6 weeks of age.

This is the ruling lord of the herd, at least for the moment. What to do with the adult males of every species here is a problem, since most hoofed stock tends to live in harem groups of one male and many females. So, at The Wilds, males have to take turns. Some are kept in individual paddocks behind the scenes and rotated in and out of use depending on their value as a breeder and the constant struggle to maintain genetic diversity. Once the male of each species becomes too closely related to the ladies in his herd, he is replaced. Tough luck, fella. Maybe you want to back off and not work so hard.
I don't have the time or space to talk about the three giraffe species we saw or the Takin, which looks more like a bear than an ungulate. I wanted to share a beautiful herd of Sable Antelope, on alert for some danger we could neither see nor hear. And there are zebras and rhinos and deer and elands and the newly opened but still under-construction medium sized carnivore exhibit, which will house cheethas, dholes, and African wild dogs. But, I will leave you with one of my favorite animals from this trip - the Bactrian Camels:

These are the two-humped camels, from Mongolia. Surprisingly, Mongolia's climate is very similar to Ohio's, and these are one of the few species at The Wilds which can remain out on pasture all year round and doesn't have to be housed indoors for the winter.

These girls were shedding and boy, do they shed. We were tempted to get out our grooming tools and give them a good brushing!
"Dahling, I'm having a bad hair day."

Apparently, everything about a Bactrian Camel comes in twos.

Two humps.

Two toes.

Two heads?
This was the view from the hill top as we left. In the foreground, you can see the three Bactrian Camels strolling down the first road, a tour bus chugging along the second, a herd of bison grazing between the third and fourth roads, and who knows what in the distance.
I hope you have enjoyed this trip to The Wilds, and that it stimulates you to visit. There is more to see than can be shown in one post, and more even than can be seen in one visit. Not only do you have all the exotic creatures here, but the surrounding property has been designated an Important Bird Area by the Audubon Society, and the grassland birding is famous among Ohio birders.

Alas, I was traveling with my family who, while they don't qualify for non-birding status, were less than tolerant of my pursuit of Little Brown Birds Hidden in Brown Grass. Just as I was narrowing in on the "tse-lick" of a Henslow's Sparrow, they reached terminal boredom and began honking the horn to tell me it was time to leave. Ah, well - another day, another missed Life Bird.


Susan Gets Native said...

We went to the Wilds before heading over to the lovely village of Whipple, to visit with the Thompson/Zick clan.
I was traveling with non-birders too.
But our bus had real glass windows! Neener.
But on the other hand, they were dirty and hard to see through. So neener on me, I guess.
So THAT's where you were!

I will email you about heading out to CNC....

Mary Ann said...

I've never been there when they were open and touring, but the Cincinnati Bird Club arranged a Winter trip out there two years ago, and it was too cool! We got to pet Rhino babies and saw giraffes both at eye-level and ground-level. A few species were out and about as well (like the camels). It's surreal to be in zero degree weather and look over to see a bunch of camels laying in the road. It was quite an experience, I hope it can be arranged again at some point. But man, it was COLD out there! Some people saw a Golden Eagle, but our vehicle missed it.

KGMom said...

Wow--that Bactrian camel's bad hair day makes me feel good about the worst of my bad hair days.
I will keep that image in mind!

nina said...

We've set a trip to the Wilds as a goal for an outing this summer--have always heard wonderful things about it, never went when the girls were younger.
My older daughter, now doing PhD research on invasives, still wants to go.
I think we're WAY overdue!

Lisa said...

It wasn't terminal boredom, your mother had to pee. Geez, make us out to be the bad guys in the story...!