Cottonwood Falls As Flint Hills cowboy Gene Matile operates the high-tech squeeze chute and scale, one observation becomes obvious: 1,500 pounds on a bison sure looks a lot different than 1,500 pounds on a beef cow.
"More intimidating, for some reason," Matile says with a laugh.
Of course, Matile already knew that. He was part of a group that traveled to Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota in 2009 to take possession of a herd of 13 bison to bring back to the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in Chase County.
Bison tagging at Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve
Twenty-six bison were tagged and inspected Monday, Oct. 21, at Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve.
While at that South Dakota roundup, Matile was just a few feet away from a squeeze chute — a mechanical device meant to hold the animal in place while it is inspected — when the bison escaped out the side and headed right for him. Matile scrambled up a set of stairs of a nearby observation tower to get out of the way of the charging animal, and got a quick lesson in the difference in speed, power and temperament between cattle and bison.
Now, four years later, Matile and about a dozen other workers are running their first bison roundup at the tallgrass preserve. It has been four years worth of learning about these animals that once were the king of the Flint Hills.
"We're happy with how the project has gone so far," said Kristen Hase, chief of natural resources at the tallgrass preserve. "There is a sense of accomplishment here."
A growing herd
The original herd of 13 has now grown to 25 as the bison cows have had several successful calving seasons. Officials with The Nature Conservancy, the not-for-profit group that owns the herd, are heading back to South Dakota next month to take possession of another 12 bison from the Wind Cave herd, said Paula Matile, the conservation specialist who oversees the bison herd for The Nature Conservancy.
The fact that bison are becoming more bountiful in the Flint Hills is a success story in itself for The Nature Conservancy. In the early 1900s, conservationists estimated that you could count the number of bison left on the Great Plains by the dozens. The species was almost extinct.
Bison have made a great comeback, but there is still one category of bison that remains in relatively small supply: bison that are completely free of cattle DNA. The Wind Cave herd fits that category, but the national park is running out of land to properly grow the herd. The herd at the tallgrass preserve became one of the first "satellite herds" dedicated to maintaining a herd free of cattle DNA.
Hase said that portion of the project has been a success too. The herd roams on about 1,100 acres of the 11,000 acres that make up the tallgrass preserve. Cattle are in nearby pastures, but only stocker steers, which are incapable of breeding, Hase said.
Plans call for the herd to ultimately grow to 75 to 100 animals. As it grows, officials with the National Park Service and with The Nature Conservancy will be watching to see how the prairie changes as the dominant native species of the plains is reintroduced to the grasslands.
Paula Matile said that already they are noticing how the bison treat the prairie differently than cattle do. For example, they sleep in a different area than they graze, they eat far more of the nongrass species of the prairie than cattle will, they wallow and leave depressions in the pastures, and they don't congregate around water sources as much as cattle do.
In time, those grazing habits are expected to create interesting changes in prairie ecosystems for biologists and others to study, Matile said.
In the meantime, visitors to the tallgrass preserve are having a ball observing the bison, even though park officials sometimes worry hikers are getting too close to the herd. Hase said they see plenty of pictures of the park's herd on Facebook.
"People still love them," Hase said. "There is just something about bison."
On bison time
There were no helicopters at this bison roundup in the Flint Hills. That's different from the roundups held in South Dakota. There, a helicopter flies low to the ground in an attempt to steer the bison toward the corrals.
Here, cowboy Gene uses an old pickup truck, a siren and a mechanical feeder to try to bait the bison toward the roundup area. He also has one other tool: a pair of crossed fingers. More than anything, bison workers mainly have to hope that the bison are in a mood to be moved. Organizers had an alternate date set for the roundup in case the bison simply didn't cooperate.
"You don't push them like you do cattle," said Tom Jernigan, a Council Grove veterinarian who has worked with bison off and on in the last 34 years. "They either come in, or they don't."
The bison were in the mood on this day, and they were brought into about a half dozen corrals, separated by size and temperament.
As for the roundup activity, some of it simply involved the operation of hydraulic levers. The levers would either open or close a gate, creating a path for a bison to move through a maze of alleyways toward the squeeze chute.
At the squeeze chute, the animals were tagged, weighed, given a series of vaccinations and had blood drawn for testing. One worker, Paula Matile, had the job of taking a pair of pliers and pulling hair from the tail of each bison.
Another worker, Keith Yearout, the ranch manager for the large bison herd on the privately owned Z-Bar Ranch in Barton County, had the job of getting nose to nose with the bison while they were in the squeeze chute. For those bison that didn't have a tag, he would stick his hand in their mouths to determine an approximate age.
"Patience and move slow," Yearout said when asked the keys to that job.
The bison ranged in size from the 1,500-pound bull to a 175-pound calf. Age ranges were from 6.5 years to 5 months.
In total, it took the Flint Hills crew about three hours to run the 25 bison through the chute — a mighty slow pace compared with the couple of minutes per cow it takes good stockmen and a veterinarian to work cattle.
But cowboy Gene was fine with the pace.
"Nobody got hurt," he said to the group as the roundup came to a close. "Neither person nor buffalo. It was a good day. I didn't have to run up any stairs."