South Dakota bison roundup
Officials from the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve are in South Dakota this week watching as a herd of wild bison is gathered for them to bring back to Kansas.
Wind Cave National Park, S.D. In this place where the prairie meets the Ponderosa Pine, the rainbows are brilliant.
For a brief hour, rays of sunshine win the battle with a cold South Dakota mist, and the result is a full rainbow — its arc touching two points on the rolling range.
Beneath it all is a parade for the senses: the sound of constant clanking of steel gates; the smell of smoke from a hardwood fire in a cabin stove; the taste of homemade chili and elk sausage from a potluck lunch; and then, the sight of a helicopter rising above the horizon and hovering less than a dozen feet from the ground.
And, of course, there are the bison. Some restful, some rank, but all standing under this rainbow as if nature decided to put a picture frame around their majesty.
A group of Kansans watch it all from atop a homemade crow’s nest that towers above the scene. Yes, they manage to dodge the comments about Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz, but even some of them can’t help but think of another rainbow reference:
Perhaps this really is a prairie pot of gold.
Leaders from the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve near Strong City sure hope so. They are here to collect 20 of the bison — more informally, buffalo — from this unique herd of about 500.
They hope the 20 will be the beginning of a herd of about 100 that will roam the public parkland in the Flint Hills for all to see. They hope it is the beginning of much — a new tourist attraction, a new start for a species that once dominated the Flint Hills, and a new window for people to see the unique beauty of one of the continent’s rarer ecosystems.
“Some of the beauty of our grasslands is a little more subtle,” said Kristen Hase, chief of natural resources for the Flint Hills preserve. “This is going to be a big bang, basically.”
That’s for sure because as the group would find out, there’s nothing subtle about buffalo.
Gene Matile is a Chase County cowboy, complete with a big black hat and broad shoulders that have worked cattle most of his life.
He’s a manager for the private ranching outfit that runs cattle on portions of the nearly 11,000 acres that make up the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. His wife is a conservationist for the Kansas wing of The Nature Conservancy, the nonprofit organization that actually hopes to buy these 20 buffalo. As such, cowboy Gene likely will get plenty of chances to wrangle buffalo in the near future.
At the moment, Gene is leaning against a pile of hay bales stacked near the stairs to the crow’s nest. A visitor has just asked him what he thinks the main difference will be between working cattle and buffalo. No sooner than the words left the air, a big bison makes an unexpected turn at the nearby chute and is on her way to the onlookers.
Cowboy Gene moves fast. The man who normally is in charge of any corral in sight, high-tailed it to the top of the stairs.
“That,” he said as he turned to the questioner, “is the difference right there. Bison are wild animals. Cattle aren’t.”
It showed in the way a crew of about 40 people rounded the bison up. First, it is helicopters, not horses, that are the main movers in this annual round-up. Two helicopters patrol the 44-square mile Wind Cave National Park, which is just south of Rapid City and Mount Rushmore. The helicopters often hover as close as five feet to the ground to change the path of the buffalo and to get the animals moving toward an elaborate corral system.
The corrals are made of old highway guardrails, I-beams and a simple philosophy: “If you figure a cow can go through it, you had better make it stronger,” said Mike Carter, a seven-year veteran of the roundup.
Carter is one of two park employees with an up-close seat for the show. Carter and Jeff Simmons — both normally maintenance workers at the park — work at the head of the squeeze chute. The chute is a hydraulic contraption that squeezes steel plates around the buffalo to keep it in place while Carter and Simmons check its ear tag or microchip and hold its head in place while veterinarians perform a variety of procedures.
Simmons often is just inches from the eyes of the buffalo as he either twists its horns or inserts a nose ring that is attached to a rope and pulley system that gives the workers more leverage to hold the animal in place. Simmons said it is a job that is entirely about timing.
“You just feel it coming,” Simmons said. “If she starts to thrash, you get your hands off of it and let it finish its fit and settle down, and then try it again.”
The Kansans took notice of it all. The 20 animals they hope to get won’t be this big. They’ll be one-and-a-half to two-and-a-half years old, and weigh between 360 to 760 pounds. But in three years, when the Kansas group expects to do its first round-up, they’ll be much bigger.
When that round-up happens, plans call for the group to use pickups with feeders on them — not helicopters — to get the buffalo into the catch pens.
Some of the visiting Kansans, which included four park service employees and two people associated with the Nature Conservancy, overheard Simmons explain what they can expect.
“I can herd buffalo anywhere,” he said. “Anywhere they want to go.”
Simmons tells of how people flock to Wind Cave National Park to see the buffalo.
“It is just the size and the wildness of them that fascinate people,” Simmons said. “During the motorcycle rally (at Sturgis, S.D.) there might be a hundred bikes on Highway 385 in the middle of a buffalo herd, which isn’t real smart, but they do it.”
They do it in large numbers, actually. The park attracts about 800,000 visitors a year, and it could be argued that the buffalo are the top attraction.
The Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve attracts about 20,000 visitors per year. Leaders there don’t have any firm estimate about how much a buffalo herd may increase visitation, but they expect it to help significantly.
“I can tell you people are very excited about it,” said Wendy Lauritzen, superintendent for the Tallgrass Preserve. “Businesses in Cottonwood Falls and Strong City are anticipating the bison coming out here because we do know that people will come out to see bison.”
The herd will be confined to about an 1,100-acre pasture that is included on the park’s bus tours. The pasture area also will have hiking trails for the public to explore the herd on its own. Although there are private herds in the state, the Tallgrass herd is expected to be one of the few in the state so open to the public.
“We’ll put signs about the need to be careful,” Hase said. “Hopefully people will read them.”
Lauritzen believes people not only will see the signs, but also will see much more. She believes the bison will be the magnet that will attract people to the park, but visitors will leave pleasantly surprised about how much else there was to see.
“This is the type of place some people may drive by and say there is nothing out there to see,” Lauritzen said. “But the reality is there is a lot to see out here. It is a place to take time and come to see. It is a place to be experienced.”
But the project isn’t all about tourism. Conservationists see the return of buffalo to the Flint Hills as the next chapter in a remarkable comeback story.
Just a few generations ago, many thought it would be impossible to see a buffalo in 2009.
“There were just a few dozen left in Yellowstone and a few more roaming the Plains,” said Dan Roddy, the Wind Cave biologist in charge of the round-up. “They were nearly extinct, gone from the face of the earth in the early 1900s.”
Now, there are several hundred thousand buffalo roaming on public grounds. But there is one category of buffalo that still remains in small supply — buffalo that are free from cattle DNA. Pure buffalo, although conservationists often cringe at that term.
Currently, the Wind Cave herd is the best of the best when it comes to cattle-free buffalo. That’s because it is one of only two public herds in the country that have been shown to be free of cattle DNA. The other is in Yellowstone, but it has problems with brucellosis, a contagious livestock disease that keeps that herd from being exported to other states.
Wind Cave leaders are excited to provide buffalo to groups such as The Nature Conservancy, Indian tribes and other nonprofits because they feel it is the best way to grow the numbers of their genetically rare buffalo.
“Wind Cave played a really prominent role in bringing back buffalo to the northern Plains,” said Roddy, explaining the park got its herd started from some animals donated by the Bronx Zoo in 1913. “Now, 100 years later, we’re doing the same thing for other areas. We feel like we’ve almost gone full circle.”
Ron Baker’s semi came to a stop in front of the flagman at the construction zone. It was more than 100 miles and nearly two hours into this trip of 700 miles, and the cattle trailer hitched to the semi still bounced up and down and swayed from side to side.
The buffalo inside were not happy.
The Kansas group ended up receiving only 13 buffalo — six cows and seven bulls. Other groups from Montana, Iowa, and even Mexico received fewer than they had sought, too. The helicopters this year just weren’t able to herd as many buffalo as in years past. Workers around the pen talked about how some of the bison get smart in a hurry. They see the helicopters and realize a long-standing rule on the prairie: Buffalo have no boss. Not a guy on a horse. Not a pilot in a helicopter.
The Kansas group, though, was happy enough with what it received. Happy, but anxious.
After driving all night, Baker’s semi climbed up the muddy slope of the Flint Hills pasture. At the top of the hill was a standard cattle pen — panels of gates made of small steel tubing pinned and wired together. No heavy guardrails or I-beams here.
Men half-jokingly began talking about escape plans. One said he was going to jump on top of a nearby pickup if the buffalo crashed the gates. Another said he might be safer underneath the pickup.
One got an extra length of chain from his truck and started to wrap it around a joint in the gates.
“You don’t mind, do you?” he said to another worker.
“It surely won’t hurt,” was the response.
Then — after five days of traveling and observing and wondering — the moment of truth came. Baker backed his rig up to a rusty cattle chute. Cowboy Gene got his cattle prod out, and everyone at the pasture trained their eyes on the pen.
The trailer door slid open, and after a moment’s hesitation the buffalo came out to a drum roll of pounding hoofs on a steel trailer floor. One of the bigger ones gave a half-hearted hit to the catch pen panel. It held. Then, the animals saw the big bale of hay in the center ring. They all flocked to it, and it was over.
Ah, hay. Home.