The Bison of Paynes Prairie

Wild Bison in Florida?

When you think of bison you probably imagine somewhere like Yellowstone National Park with mountains covered in snow, or maybe the rolling plains of the Midwest. But what if I told you we have a population of wild bison roaming around one of Florida’s best state parks? Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park is located just south of Gainesville, and it is one of the most unique and biodiverse environments in the state. The park protects a 23,000-acre section of the Florida Wildlife Corridor and is home to a herd of wild bison and Spanish horses which thrive in the prairie landscape.

History of Bison in the Park

To revitalize the state park and return it to what it was like before colonial settlement, 10 bison were introduced to Paynes Prairie in 1975 from the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma. Since then, the herd has grown to about 50-70 bison which serve as a reminder of what North America used to look like. Last December, I set out to photograph the majestic bison in their natural habitat and I was not disappointed.

The Journey

My name is Ethan Coyle, and I am the Photography Intern at the Florida Wildlife Corridor Foundation. I joined the team last August and have been tasked with documenting the breathtaking flora and fauna of our great state. Having been born and raised in Lakeland, FL I thought I knew all of what central Florida had to offer, but a herd of wild bison was a shock to me. Once I got wind of this, I knew I had to see them with my own eyes. I started the day at the three-story observation tower which gives a breathtaking view of the prairie where you can see for miles. If you are lucky (like me) you can spot some of the wild horses or bison grazing off in the distance.

From here I hiked over to the nearby Cones-Dike Trail which goes straight out into the prairie and is one of the best trails to try and see the animals up close. Three miles into the Eight- mile trail I was already getting discouraged, the tall prairie grass surrounded me and there were no signs of any animals. The weather was looking rough, so I reluctantly decided to turn around. Moments later, a couple who had passed me on the trail came running back to tell me that there was a bison which emerged from the brush and was following us on the trail!

Up Close and Personal

I got a burst of adrenaline and immediately scrambled to set up my tripod to start photographing this beauty of a beast. It slowly but steadily trotted down the trail right at us like we weren’t even there. As it got closer, I noticed that it only had one horn. It proceeded to leisurely follow us like a puppy for about 10 minutes, stopped a few times to graze, and even rolled around in the dirt before finally saying goodbye and disappearing back into the prairie. Afterward, I could hardly believe what had happened. I wanted to see the bison with my own eyes, and I got to see a 1,000-pound, one-horned beauty 50 feet away from my face.

Explore the Prairie for Yourself

I highly recommend visiting Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park as it is one of the most expansive and diverse parks in the state. It is conveniently located right off I-75 and it offers grand landscapes, plenty of outdoor activities, and is teeming with wildlife any season you visit. Paynes Prairie is a gem within the Corridor, and I hope you go out to see the bison for yourselves!

Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park
Ethan Coyle Photography Intern
Ethan is a senior at the University of South Florida studying Advertising and Environmental Science. Born and raised in Lakeland, Florida, he has spent most of his time outdoors leading him to develop a passion for nature photography. Most recently, he spent his spring break exploring the Everglades after being inspired by the “Path of the Panther” documentary. He is a true lover of old Florida and hopes to use his visual creativity to spark interest in preserving our state’s beautiful landscapes.