The History Of Golden Gate Park’s Bison Herd Goes All The Way Back To 1891

Jamie Ferrell Jamie Ferrell

The History Of Golden Gate Park’s Bison Herd Goes All The Way Back To 1891

This historic paddock is maintained by the San Francisco Zoo and the Recreation & Parks Department.

Many a tourist in San Francisco is surprised to discover a herd of American Bison grazing in the middle of Golden Gate Park. Not only are they an unexpected sight in the City, but even long-term residents may not know about the history of this famous paddock.

According to the San Francisco Zoo, the species faced extinction in the United States in the late 1800s as a result of mass hunting. Golden Gate Park Superintendent John McLaren introduced the first bison to the park in 1891 in an effort to preserve the species. The animal was a bull named Ben Harrison, hailing from conservationist C.J. Jones’ Kansas ranch. Within 2 years, Ben Harrison and the first female, Sarah Bernhardt, had welcomed a calf – and from that point on, Golden Gate Park’s bison population exploded.

The park’s herd bred over 500 calves throughout the years, and the species was ultimately saved from extinction thanks to captive breeding efforts like this one. Now, the park’s population is entirely female so as to keep a manageable group dynamic and avoid unauthorized breeding. In March of 2020, the park welcomed 5 new female calves from a ranch in Northern California, bringing the total park population to 10 females.

Golden Gate Park’s bison herd was originally named after public figures such as Grover Cleveland, Bill McKinley and Bill Bunker. They also went through a period of Shakespearean names and Native American names. The 5 older bison currently residing in the park are named Betsy, Bailey, Bellatrix, Buttercup and Bambi.

According to SF Rec & Parks, The herd originally grazed around where the Music Concourse now stands, before being moved to its current position in the western half of the park in 1899. The herd has fluctuated in numbers from 5 to as many as 30 in 1918, and the 5 older members are descendants of a pair that then-mayor Dianne Feinstein’s husband, Richard Blum, gifted to her on her birthday. Feinstein and Blum continue to support the herd, having donated $50,000 to secure the 5 new young bison from a NorCal ranch.


The bison are a pretty relaxed bunch, as they spend most of their time grazing in their paddock. The Golden Gate Park website tells us that bison behavior can¬† mostly be detected by their tails – a relaxed tail means they feel undisturbed, a slightly raised tail shows mild excitement, an arched tail shows nervousness, and a raised tail signifies a possible bison challenge. Given that this herd is entirely female, you’re unlikely to see much action beyond a slow stroll around the paddock, although they can run at up to 30 miles an hour.

If you want to visit Golden Gate Park’s famous bison herd, you’ll find the paddock in the northwest corner of the park off of John F. Kennedy Drive. You can also watch a live stream of the herd’s activity¬†here.


[Featured Image: @sfrecpark via Instagram]

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