The California Trail at the Oakland Zoo Opens June 28

Bison, gray wolves, grizzlies, and other native California animals will roam the East Bay again.


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Photo courtesy Oakland Zoo

Look there, just over the ridge. A dozen brown shag carpets munch grass and lap water from a pond. It’s a small herd of beautiful bison, roaming a patch of the Oakland hills as they might have in centuries gone by. Yards away, the dark hulk of a California grizzly bear lumbers in a field. Gray wolves and jaguars paw through thick brush. Only the tall, fenced enclosures and a sweeping backdrop of Bay Area civilization betray the modern era.

While not exactly Jurassic Park (no wooly mammoths or giant ground sloths cloned from fossilized DNA), the Oakland Zoo’s new California Trail attraction has brought several extinct and threatened California native species back to their home turf.

The massive zoo expansion, more than two decades in the works, is finally set to open June 28, showcasing the state’s biodiversity of the past, present and — with hope — the future.

“The gray wolf, the buffalo — they used to roam here by the thousands,” said Joel Parrott, president and CEO of the Oakland Zoo, as he stood on the new bison overlook during a media event welcoming the bison in April. “The grizzly was once so prevalent it was used as the image on our state flag. But they’ve disappeared because of conflict with humans.

“These guys we have here now can serve as animal ambassadors, helping us educate the public on how people can do a better job living with wildlife,” Parrott said. “So, we’re thrilled this project is finally reality.”

Indeed, the expansive and expensive $80-million project — which nearly doubles the zoo’s footprint to 100 acres into the city-owned hills of Knowland Park, making it one of the largest zoos in the country — is all about conservation and reintroduction of species, not for mere spectacle.

“This is not just, ‘Oh, look at the pretty buffalo,” said Amy Gotliffe, the zoo’s director of conservation. “We want you to look at the pretty buffalo and then feel something in your heart that moves you to action. We want to help people of the Bay Area really connect with these animals and become conservation heroes themselves.”

To that end, the zoo has formed partnerships with numerous conservation groups, such as the Blackfeet Nation tribe in Montana, which is working to restore buffalo to the American West as wildlife, not merely livestock. And the California Wolf Center in San Diego and its range steward program, encouraging successful coexistence for wolves and people as gray wolves are gradually reintroduced to the state.

Ironically, the California Trail project was long delayed largely because of opposition from local conservation groups concerned this attraction — though designed to promote species protection — would encroach on Knowland Park’s native plant and wildlife. The project eventually got the go-ahead and has proceeded in stages, starting in 2012 with the completion of a state-of-the-art veterinary hospital, followed by the Biodiversity Center in 2013 and the Condor Recovery Center in 2014. Construction for the trail, animal enclosures, and visitor amenities finally began in 2015.

Because of the steep terrain in the rolling hills above the original zoo complex, visitors travel to the California Trail exhibits via aerial gondolas — modern glass pods built by a Swiss company and installed at the zoo last summer. The four-minute ride provides dramatic views of the Bay Area and of the bison grazing on the hillside.

At the top of the hill is the Habitarium, the “wildlife action center,” Gotliffe said, with information about conservation and interactive stations. Plus there’s the Kaiser Permanente Visitor Center and the Landing Cafe, a glass-walled restaurant with offerings like chicken tortas and pizza — be sure to try Barlow’s Grizzly Extreme (asparagus, goat cheese, arugula).

Just steps away you’ll see the high-fenced animal enclosures. The centerpiece is the grizzly exhibit with a full two football fields’ worth of room for the bears to roam. Near that is a 2-acre habitat for a pair of gray wolves that arrived last December — a female from the Wolf Center and a male from the McCleery Buffalo Wolf Foundation in Montana.

In the black bear enclosure, a mother bear nuzzles her three cubs, a happy ending after a close call. In addition to returning native species to the state, the California Trail serves as a haven for wildlife that might otherwise have to be euthanized. This mother bear was deemed a fugitive after breaking into several homes in a remote area of north Los Angeles County and attacking one resident. She could not have been returned to the wild, leaving her cubs orphaned.

The buffalo arrived by truck in April. Descended from buffalo captured on Blackfeet land in 1873 and dubbed the Pablo-Allard herd, these animals — all female — are a gift to the zoo from the Blackfeet Nation. Two male bison from Yellowstone National Park will join the females this fall for breeding. Offspring will be returned to Montana to restore a herd living on Blackfeet tribal land, Glacier National Park, and Waterton National Park.

“What we can do that nature can’t do is bring in different bulls and introduce new genetics that strengthen the species, diversify the gene pool for them and make them healthier bison,” Parrott said.

Members of the Blackfeet tribe delivered the buffalo to Oakland with a ceremonial blessing of song and dance.

“For us, the buffalo basically gave us life,” said tribe elder Terry Tatsey. “A lot of our ceremonies and cultural ties come from our relationship to the buffalo. They give their lives to us for our existence, so we have a responsibility for them. And we know the Oakland Zoo will take good care of them.”

For more information on the Oakland Zoo’s California Trail, visit www.OaklandZoo.org

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