Don't fence me in

Are bison becoming just another cow with a hump?

  • Where the buffalo roamed

    Diane Sylvain
  • Buffalo

    Neal and Mary Jane Mishler
  • Here and around the West, bison have been brought back from the brink of extinction

  • BIG OPEN: Bison in the Theodore Roosevelt National Park

    John A. Heiser photo
  • WINTER ON THE PLAINS: John Heiser pitches hay to cattle

    Mark Matthews photo
  • BISON ARE THE WAY: Fred DuBray

    Robbie McClaran photo
  • TOUGH BREED: A bison dust-bathes on the plains

    SD Dept. of Hwys photo/Ken Nougand
  • ONE OF THE FAMILY: Bison in Knowles' living room

    Craig Knowles photo

Note: a sidebar article titled "Bison comeback meets resistance on the ground" accompanies this feature story.

MEDORA, N.D. - When a young Teddy Roosevelt came here 115 years ago to hunt bison, he had a hard time finding one. The nation's wild bison herds, which had covered the prairie from the Appalachians to the Rockies, were undergoing mass slaughter. It took an increasingly frustrated Roosevelt a dozen days to track one down and shoot it.

Though he had no qualms about killing one of a species tottering toward extinction, the experience opened his eyes to the plight of wildlife in general. It helped turn the 24-year-old budding politician into a major player in the early conservation movement.

Roosevelt, and conservationists since then, couldn't stop agricultural developments, including 45.5 million cattle, from replacing up to 65 million bison on the historical bison range.

But today, just outside this small town of neat houses and little shops, in between the cattle ranches in a badlands of rugged gullies and sculpted draws, more bison roam than in the days Roosevelt hunted. Their sanctuary is named Theodore Roosevelt National Park, after the chest-thumping president himself.

From an overlook, I spot a herd of about 35 bison lounging near a prairie dog town. As if on cue, the bison rise as one and move down a draw, continually grazing as they step through the native bunchgrasses.

I can't help but be inspired by the shaggy beasts, which most people know by their nickname, buffalo. Here and around the West, on public and private land, bison have been brought back from the brink of extinction. The herd I'm watching is only a fraction of the bison population that's rebounded to 250,000 and continues to increase.

Even from a distance, you can feel their powerful presence. As a starstruck Associated Press story recently observed, "With inch-thick hides and dense piles of fur coating 2,000-pound bodies, the buffalo can outrun a horse, outjump cattle and withstand the Plains' brutal winters." Any human who gets too close is sure to be gored and trampled. For good reasons and gut feelings, the bison are revered as a symbol of wildness.

Their recovery hasn't progressed to where some visionaries imagine it should be - the herds aren't again roaming horizon to horizon - and there is plenty of opposition to substituting bison for domestic cows. Yet compared to trying to bring back the spotted owl or the grizzly bear, and despite headlines about the most prominent herd, in Yellowstone National Park, being subjected to roaming limits and sometimes controlled slaughter, most people see the bison as a success story. Just as the bison face fewer enemies on the natural landscape, they face fewer on the political landscape.

Still, bison aren't being brought back to what they used to be.

Somewhere in the background here, out of sight of most visitors, a seven-foot-high fence of woven wire confines this herd to the park, imposing even more control than at Yellowstone. Every fall, this park hires two helicopters and accepts the help of volunteer cowboys to conduct a roundup. Treated like cattle, the bison are run into corrals and forced through narrowing chutes until each one is immobilized in a squeeze chute. Officials take blood samples, vaccinate some of the bison for brucellosis (the same disease that's the issue in Yellowstone) and test for tuberculosis.

The cowboys cull this herd to maintain 350 animals in the park's southern unit and less than 300 in the northern unit. Biologists also remove some of the bison of all age and sex classes and give them to local Indian tribes, to maintain a "natural" mix in the herd.

Behind its conservation image, the National Park Service here has become merely one of the 2,100 or so bison ranchers operating around the West now, which is another way to measure the bison's comeback. State governments raise bison, dozens of Indian tribes raise bison and the private herds range from billionaire Ted Turner's 15,000 bison on his collection of Western ranches down to the hobbyists who keep a couple of bison on the back 40.

Most bison today live on private land, but even in the public herds, federal and state officials often manipulate them in an unnatural way. During the brutal winter of 1996-97 in Yellowstone, officials killed almost 1,100 bison that left the protection of the park to seek forage. Genetically speaking, those may have been the most desirable bison.

In Alaska and Utah, hunters are allowed to cull some herds. There are various management goals - sometimes older bison or just those that cause trouble during roundups are culled, the way cattle ranchers send ornery cattle to the slaughterhouse first.

Bison were slaughtered as raw material for industrial and political machines in the last century. Their hides were made into drive belts for the automated looms in New England textile mills, or their carcasses were simply left to rot - wasted to make life harder for the Indian tribes that depended on the herds for meat, clothing and tepee materials.

A different market is being defined now, with no waste and improved efficiency - you can buy bison meat just about anywhere from Tucson to Boise, on both urban coasts and overseas. At the Iron Horse Saloon in Medora, the park's gateway town, the bison steaks are lean, low in fat and cholesterol, grown without hormones, and tasty. Bison meat sells for two to three times what beef sells for, and every day it seems there are more consumers willing to pay the higher price; the total bison industry annual economic impact is estimated to have reached $500 million.

But amid the celebration of this onrushing economy, one fact goes generally unrealized: Treating bison as an industry may change the species forever.

"Bison are inherently wild," says John Heiser, a small-scale cattle rancher who doubles as a summer ranger in the park. He explains how some of the park's bison manage to elude the corrals and some even conquer the seven-foot-high, woven-wire fences. "If they can get their nose over it, they will jump it. I spend a couple of days a week chasing them back into the park, or fixing busted fences."

Inevitably, Heiser says, as they become more accepting of fences and roundups, "domestic bison lose the fire in their eyes. (They're) not real bison."

One wildlife biologist who keeps five bison on his ranchette is even more blunt about where the species may be headed: "just another cow with a hump."

The Big Open or the Buffalo Commons, this isn't

People usually talk about bringing back the bison in grand terms: the Big Open, or the Buffalo Commons. Both terms evoke visions of ranchers, farmers and governments cooperating to put the many pieces of the historical range back together into large expanses where bison can again roam. Envisioned, too, is a warm and fuzzy economy, centered on bison-oriented tourism.

"I had no idea that bison would create such intense interest," says Chuck Jonkel, a Montana wildlife biologist who helped introduce the idea of the Big Open in eastern Montana in the early 1980s. "There was passion and interest expressed by people worldwide. It blew me out of the water."

But the increase in bison over the last decade has little to do with any grand vision. It has to do instead with hundreds of smaller stories - such as that of businessman Sandy Limpert.

Limpert used to raise cattle and sheep on his 2,500-acre Slim Buttes ranch in South Dakota, but in the mid-1970s he tried out a few bison, and since then he's switched.

Limpert's reasons begin with the springtime. For most ranchers and livestock, spring blizzards are the toughest time of the year. Cattle undergo the stress of calving just as heavy, wet snow hits. Ranchers distributing hay and tending their herds have a hard time struggling through the springtime snowdrifts.

A spring blizzard in the Dakotas in 1997 killed 100,000 cattle. This spring another blizzard put the Dakotas under siege.

But the spring blizzards are different for Limpert. In the killer 1997 blizzard, Limpert lost no stock. In this spring's blizzard, he spent only 15 minutes or so checking on his 400 bison. Many bison ranchers fared as well.

"When I raised cattle and sheep, we'd be out working every hour of the day in a mess like (this spring's blizzard)," Limpert says. "We don't need to feed (the bison) unless the weather gets real tough. They require one-third the feed a cow does. Labor costs (also) went down."

Bison use their gigantic heads like snow shovels to get to the snow-buried grass. They calve in late May and June. Mostly, Limpert just leaves his bison alone. Profits are somewhat delayed compared to cattle - bison cows don't calve until their third year, and the calves take a bit longer than cattle to reach market weight - but once the bison cows are producing, they drop a calf every year for up to 30 years. It's as close to a cash machine as livestock gets these days. Bison are in such demand, weaned heifer calves sell for $2,000 each.

During summer and fall, when Limpert rotates the herd to fresh pasture every 30 days, the bison follow a pickup truck that disperses feed pellets; when Limpert honks the horn, the bison come running. It takes only 20 minutes or so to move the entire herd. In the fall, "we round them up and run them through the chutes, worm them and wean the calves," Limpert says.

All the females are used as breeding stock, whether they're kept or sold. "I get from $4,000 to $5,000 for a pregnant heifer," Limpert says, "compared to about $850 for a pregnant heifer cow."

Limpert sells the bulls to a cooperative in New Rockford, N.D., which butchers and ships the meat on to the East Coast and farther - about 20 percent goes to Europe.

"People prefer the leaner meat," Limpert says. "Cattlemen don't understand how big a business it is. I get about $2.35 a pound, compared to $1.05 for beef."

At the end of the production line, in grocery stores, choice bison cuts sell for $13 a pound. In fine restaurants, 12-to-14-ounce bison rib-eye goes for $21, 8-to-10-ounce bison tenderloin for $32.

All in all, Limpert says, "My income doubled on the same amount of acreage." Twice the profit, half the work - that's the slogan for the bison rancher. "The bison leave me time to be with the wife and kids," Limpert says. "Before, our whole lives were tied up at the ranch." Now he even takes summer vacations with his family - an unheard-of extravagance for most cattle ranchers.

The pastures might not be greener

From an environmental standpoint, bringing back the bison can look pretty good, too. Environmentalists tend to support any shift away from cattle. And compared to cattle, the huge bison herds of the last century had less negative impact on the land. You can see it on the ground today, comparing the confines of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park with some neighboring cattle operations.

Cattle tend to stick to streamsides or prairie potholes, trampling whatever riparian vegetation they don't kill with their nibbling style of grazing, which brings them back to the same plants they like time after time, until those species disappear. During hot weather, they often seek shelter in woody draws, where their overgrazing causes erosion and facilitates the invasion of more woody plants and noxious weeds.

Bison are natural roamers. They range up to three miles from water, returning only once a day to drink and then moving off again. When it gets hot, they move to high ground and just keep on roaming as they feed - aggressively biting off a plant at the surface, rather than nibbling. If bison have enough room to roam, they don't return to a grazed area until it has rejuvenated, and they don't concentrate on a few plants - they're omnivores.

You'll find few ecological problems caused by bison in the park.

"The ecology and nature of the badlands are better suited to the habits of bison than cattle," says Noel Poe, the park superintendent. "The area evolved under bison grazing. They would hit an area hard as they moved through, but then they wouldn't come back for a few years."

Yet the bison's natural tendency to roam remains one of the main sources of the controversy surrounding the species. When rancher Limpert got into bison, he reinforced his fences. "There were some start-up costs," Limpert says. "We added two strands of barbed wire to our five-strand fences, sunk posts in between existing posts and strengthened corrals and chutes."

Now, Limpert says, "The bison never get out. We used to have more trouble with the cows getting out. The trick is to outsmart bison by appeasing them so they never want to get out. Never get them looking for grass."

From August to October, Limpert shifts his herd from his ranch to a fenced allotment on the Custer National Forest. "In three years, we've had no complaints about the bison getting out," says Charles O'Dell, a federal range manager. "We're getting better distribution of grazing with the bison and better utilization of the grass. They hit it light and move on."

The biggest bison entrepreneur, Ted Turner, runs about 15,000 bison on his ranches in Montana, Nebraska and New Mexico, including a herd of about 3,000 on a single 100,000-acre pasture on his Flying D Ranch near Bozeman. The big pasture used to be four smaller pastures, but the bison kept trashing the fences. Finally, the ranch removed the fences between the pieces of habitat and raised the exterior fence to 57 inches high with four electrified strands.

But most bison aren't on big enough pastures, and so they may not be as beneficial to the range as they were in the old days. According to the Montana Bison Directory, for example, most Montana herds are small - 50 to 100 bison each - which implies their pastures are also small, more like cattle pastures.

"Ideally, it sounds good to restore that component (the bison) to the Great Plains ecosystem," says Heiser, the seasonal park ranger and cattle rancher. "But putting bison on pastures (that aren't big enough) won't replicate the Great Plains ecology."

Heiser, one of the few confessed environmentalists in western North Dakota, college-educated as a biologist, says that confining bison to normal-size or smaller pastures will change their habits - they will begin camping near waterholes just like cattle, becoming just as detrimental to the prairie. Other biologists and ranchers have the same concern.

A bottom-line approach

Turner shares the vision about bison belonging in the West, but he goes at it as a businessman. "If you really want to bring something back," he told the Associated Press recently, "make it pay. And there's nothing wrong with that." Turner sells some of the calves from his Flying D for slaughter, some for breeding stock, and the ranch charges hunters $3,500 each to shoot the occasional troublesome adult bull.

The total annual slaughter is about 20,000 bison, a tiny fraction of the cattle slaughter (135,000 a day). But, as the AP reports, bison are used for more than meat: "Parts of the animals are sold for jewelry, artwork, shoes, handbags, often through Western mail-order catalogs."

"My kids went to college on the heads and hides and bones," says Ken Throlson. Throlson keeps a personal herd of 700 bison and serves as president of the North American Bison Cooperative in North Dakota, which has a processing plant handling 60 percent of the total annual national slaughter. "There's nothing I could grow that would return for me the way buffalo does."

Inevitably, the comeback of the bison has strengthened the now 10-year-old vision of a regionwide Buffalo Commons, promoted by Frank and Deborah Popper, New Jersey-based academics. In his book, Bring Back the Buffalo, Ernest Callenbach projects that by the year 2011, if enough land is made available across the Great Plains, the bison population could expand to 33 million, about half their original number. Callenbach believes that areas of the plains that have been economically flat for decades, with populations declining to two people or less per square mile, can be rejuvenated by bison ranching and related tourism.

By Callenbach's reckoning, once the herd hits 33 million, about 13 million bison a year could be slaughtered - equal to about one-third the current cattle slaughter.

Sacred or not?

The bottom-line thinking extends to the cultures that have been most closely identified with bison - Indian tribes.

There is an assumption that all Indians revere the bison as too sacred to drag into the unsentimental arena of free enterprise. But different tribes have always had varying visions of the bison.

The bison were invited into the cultures and religions of the tribes that roamed the Great Plains alongside them. Bison played a dominant part in tribal origin myths and were said to teach the tribes how to live.

But tribes that were sedentary and lived by farming corn and other vegetables along the Missouri River, such as the Mandan, Arikara and Hidatsu (now organized as the Three Affiliated Tribes), saw the bison primarily as a source of meat.

That division is reflected today in how differently different tribes approach the bison.

Today, dozens of tribes around the country raise a total of 10,000 bison, with the majority held by 10 tribes, according to the Inter Tribal Bison Cooperative. Founded in 1990, the co-op teaches young people about the cultural significance of bison and prepares reservations to manage bison herds.

Fred DuBray, a former president of the Inter Tribal co-op, now manages the tribal bison herd on his home, the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, and looks upon his bison as a cultural treasure that may someday help make his people self-sufficient.

"We want to develop our herd as large as possible, but not just to sell meat," he says. "Actually, it would be ideal if we get to the point where we don't sell any meat at all, but instead provide a healthy diet to the people to eat. By selling meat now we are (only) helping to sustain the herd financially."

The Cheyenne River Sioux are intent on preserving the traditional relationship and the wildness of the bison. They run their bison in large areas and slaughter in a culturally appropriate fashion, often by using a mobile slaughter plant in the field. It's different than bison ranching, DuBray says.

"It's often tough to go along with some of the things other people are doing, like de-horning their animals, selecting breeding stock for certain qualities, genetically manipulating the offspring," he says. Many bison ranchers are "only in it for the money. Economic decisions begin dictating management decisions. That's really destructive to the integrity of the buffalo in the long run. It kills their spirit. Either way, they're dead as buffalo."

But Bud Mason, chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes of New Town, N.D., says he never judges how ranchers or other tribes keep their bison, because he thinks today's animals are only a distant cousin of their forebears, and it's too late to save what once was.

"The bison we have now are already domesticated to a limited degree. I don't know of any bison running free out in the wild. Even the ones in Yellowstone are pastured."

And bison ranching is what the Affiliated Tribes are doing. They act as a clearinghouse for distributing to other tribes surplus bison from the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The tribes also sell their own bison at public stock auctions. Unlike the Inter Tribal co-op, with its ideal of eventually distributing meat to tribal members free, the Affiliated Tribes don't shy away from profit.

"We deal with bison on a commercial basis," says Mason. "Just like everyone else, it is an enterprise for us."

Another breed of cow?

At one time in the distant past, cattle were wild. Even as recently as the Civil War, longhorn cattle in Texas survived on their own when ranchers turned to soldiering. During the grueling cattle drives from Texas to the Dakotas and Montana, cattle again had to prove their endurance.

But those were descendants of Spanish cattle, a long-legged, tough breed. Today, you find short-legged Hereford, Angus, Belted Galway across the Plains - cattle bred for the small pastures of England, where it rains a lot. It's hard to tell if these breeds of cattle ever had a fire in their pink-rimmed eyes.

Domestication and habituation produced the cattle we have today. The terms are not identical: Years of genetic selection produce domestic animals, while close contact with humans leads to habituation.

"To domesticate an animal takes a long time," says biologist and Big Open advocate Jonkel. "The behavioral patterns change first, then comes the genetic change."

Jonkel believes there's still time to get ranchers interested in running bison on large blocks of rangeland before the species loses its wild genes. "Genetically, the bison are still wild, although some have been tamed. They may be like elephants in Africa. If you confine elephants too much, they eventually break out and head to their ancestral spots, or they become rogues. Possibly, even domesticated bison could also revert and do the things they used to do. I don't think there's any immediate danger to bison."

It's a question increasingly debated. DuBray, on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, believes, "In just a few short years, buffalo will become another breed of cow if we let ranchers continue as they are. I don't believe that is their intent, but it will be the result."

Indians and government agencies owe it to the bison to try to maintain the wildness, DuBray says. "It will be up to federal, state and tribal governments to do it right. Governments can take on a certain amount of (management) risk ... and decide it's more important to save the quality of wildness. Tribes also have that decision-making authority. To do it right, everything has to be redone. We can't do it the way things are set up right now."

Bison ranching on public land is not progress, DuBray believes. He would rather see bison restored to the ecosystem as wildlife, just as we have tried to restore other threatened species.

But other conservationists, who had given up hope of ever seeing free-ranging bison on the Great Plains again, are warming to the idea of bringing the animals back through the short-term free-market ventures. Wildlife biologist Craig Knowles, a leading expert on prairie ecology who voices the fear that domesticated bison may become "just another cow with a hump," would still rather see privately owned bison replace cattle on the range, any day. "If nothing else, they (bison) are more aesthetically pleasing," Knowles says.

No one individual or agency can provide the large pastures necessary for the full potential of bison, Knowles says. "Management of large-pasture bison herds must be based on landscape or ecological boundaries and be a cooperative effort among agencies, private landowners, and other interested people." The way to do it, he says, is to form corporations to run the bison, with multiple landowners and herd-owners and shareholders putting the pieces back together, making management decisions together and splitting profits.

Knowles contends that all our public and private bison are already genetically altered from the free-roaming animals last seen in the 1800s. He is speaking out at every opportunity to make bison producers aware of the potential danger to the species. Domesticated bison could lose their natural immunity to disease, their independence from human help - could stop benefiting the range ecosystem.

"That's what happens when you confine animals," Knowles says. "They don't have to deal with predators. Their diseases are regulated. Troublesome animals are eliminated during roundup. When you manage any animal you're inevitably doing some genetic selection - even at Yellowstone National Park."

At a bison symposium last June, Knowles set forth his suggestions for keeping bison genetically wild. They include grazing large herds on open tracts of native range; maintaining natural ratios of bulls to cows, rather than culling most of the bulls for slaughter; randomly harvesting, preferably through hunting; maintaining an older age group; exchanging yearlings between herds to maintain genetic variety; and minimizing disease treatments.

"We will inadvertently change the genetic characteristics of bison over time," he says, "but we can at least try not to end up with an animal like a domestic cow."

I got my closest look at bison last summer, thanks to Knowles. He's been trying to persuade the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks to start a state bison herd. Officials always cite management problems as the most inhibiting factors. To get a better handle on just how difficult bison are to manage, Knowles purchased five and brought them to his 40-acre ranch, nestled in the sage-covered foothills outside Boulder, Mont., so he could observe them from the front door of his log cabin.

When Knowles brought in the first one - a bison cow - he confined her to a small corral, acclimating her to her new surroundings. All winter long, the bison watched Knowles' two children sled down a path that he had cut through the sage on a hill. When Knowles finally let the bison out of the pen, she walked up the sledding path to the top, then turned and rumbled down it at full speed.

"Unlike (bovine) cows, they seem to be very intelligent and curious animals," Knowles says. Knowles' bison roam from pasture to pasture, eat his wife's tulips and, on occasion, have gingerly stepped into the family's living room through an open door - and left without smashing any china.

As we approach the bison in one pasture, they immediately begin drifting ahead of us, maintaining their instinctive 20-yard security zone. As long as we don't try to get nearer, they show no signs of annoyance. But as we stand on the other side of a barbed-wire fence, one bison cow comes close enough that I can touch her.

"They know the fence works both ways," Knowles says. "It keeps them in, but also protects them from us."

The bison let me scratch her ear for a few seconds. She tilted her head so she could see me, not looking away as most domestic animals would. She didn't seem to be getting any pleasure from me. She was sizing me up, trying to figure out what I was all about. Then, with no warning, she suddenly jerked her head away and flicked her long horn. I pulled my hand back before she hooked me. This was no tame animal. Not yet, anyway.

Mark Matthews writes from Missoula, Montana.


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