Archive for Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Former park ranger now a buffalo rancher

Interaction with public may continue in form of guided tours at Haven property

January 17, 2006


— In the middle of a pasture, sporting blue jeans, boots and a black cowboy hat pulled down on his forehead, Jerry Schmidt was in the middle of a management job.

Just last month he retired from another one, as longtime manager of Cheney and Sand Hills State Parks.

"I never thought I'd be there that long," he admitted, or in Kansas for that matter. Schmidt, 55, always figured he'd drift west after graduating from Kansas State University in 1974 with a parks and administration degree.

But his attention these days isn't on managing a 2,000-acre state park or the half-million people who frequent it every year.

Standing on the bed of his flatbed pickup, Schmidt turned toward a herd of 53 buffalo, or bison, as scientists have officially labeled them.

"I'm ready to focus on something else," the Haven man said.

In an era before pioneers and barbed wire, there were an estimated 30 million to 70 million bison roaming North America. Today, there are about 350,000, with between 10,000 and 12,000 in Kansas.

Schmidt was introduced to the burly mammals by helping with the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks' annual buffalo auction at Maxwell Wildlife Refuge in McPherson County.

In 1989, he decided to buy some himself.

Buffalo were far from his mind when he took a job after college as a summer season ranger at Cheney State Park, later being promoted to park ranger.

In 1982, he took the job as manager of the park. At the time, he managed several parks across western Kansas, include state parks in Meade and Scott counties.

Back then he had no intentions of staying in Kansas. Now he's glad he never left.

Since 1990, Schmidt has helped oversee $6 million in Cheney State Park capital improvements, including projects to stabilize the shoreline, build and renovate campgrounds and replace rest rooms.

"There is a lot of gratification in the past 15 years on everything we've accomplished," he said.

Not everything was as gratifying, though, he said. In 2005, he had to clean up from a January ice storm and then a July 4 holiday storm that injured six people and killed one.

By December, he was ready for retirement and to spend more time with his wife, Linda, and their children and grandchildren.

And his buffalo.

"He'll be missed," said Cheney Park Manager Jody Schwartz, who worked under Schmidt for more than 20 years. "I started out as the maintenance man and he was the manager. We've seen a lot happen in the past 20-some years."

Schmidt hopes to get more into the buffalo industry, as well as agritourism - giving guided tours to everyone from school groups to tourists.

"This is a business," he said of the herd he manages. "But it also is enjoyable, at least most of the time."


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