This is going to be about the American Buffalo. Now there will be pompous nitpickers who will say, “There is no such thing as the American Buffalo. It is the American Bison.” To these folks I have but one carefully thought-out rejoinder. I intend to put my thumbs in my ears, wiggle my fingers, and make rude, spittle-flying, raspberry noises. These critics, struck speechless by my irrefutable logic, should allow me to go on about my day. Besides, who would pay good money to see “Bison Bill’s Wild West Show?” Seriously.
At one time, Buffalo ranged by the millions from Northern Canada down to Mexico. Then, in about 1860, People began to shoot them in huge numbers. A few were killed to feed workers on the transatlantic train project, a few more for their hides, but most of them were shot for two bigger reasons. The first and main reason was to deprive the native populations of their livelihood. It was a premeditated effort to starve a whole population whose only crime was “being in the way.” The other reason the buffalo died was that men in general and American pioneers in particular, when faced with a large animal, tend to go mad with blood lust.
“Wow. Look at that big, beautiful creature. I think I’ll kill it.”
The Buffalo slaughter continued through the late 1800’s. By the turn of the Century, an estimated fifty million Buffalo had been killed and left on the prairies to rot. There were only 300 Buffalo left in the Western Hemisphere. That number slowly grew to a few thousand over the next 70 years, but the North American Buffalo still teetered on the edge of extinction.
What saved the Buffalo, oddly enough, was a health fallacy foisted on the American people starting in the19 60’s. Doctors and Researchers wrote papers and articles proclaiming something that seemed so obvious on the surface that they decided it must be true – “Eating fat is what makes you fat!” Unsaturated fats – those occurring naturally in meat and dairy products – were pointed to as the culprits. Ever since then people trying to lose weight have been told to go on “low fat” diets and force themselves to drink skim milk and spread margarine on their Wonder Bread. And the diets don’t work. Science now says, “Oops! We were wrong. It isn’t the unsaturated fat, that’s okay; it’s the carbohydrates that are actually making you obese.” But the Food Industry, having made a bundle on Lo-Fat Chipparoos and the like, isn’t having any of that. As long as there are “low-fat” products on the market and advertising media to tell you that they’re good for you, people will keep shuffling down to the WalMart Super Store to buy them.
This is where the Buffalo come in. Buffalo meat is much leaner meat than beef, pork, or chicken. It is also higher in protein. Demand for Buffalo meat started growing in the 60’s and Buffalo ranches began to spring up around the West. It’s pretty ironic that uncontrolled slaughter almost wiped the species out, while controlled slaughter is now insuring its longevity.
One day my older brother Chuck, back from spending a few years in Australia, happened to run into George, the Rancher. George was an old friend of our family, the same guy who’d suffered me to work for a summer on his ranch out by Centennial.* George told Chuck that he’d sold that ranch and bought himself a place not too far away where he was raising Buffalo. Chuck found that fascinating and George invited him to come out sometime and have a look.
Not long afterward, Chuck was being shown around George’s Buffalo ranch.
“Those are some of the sturdiest corrals I’ve ever seen,” Chuck said.
“They have to be,” was George’s reply. “A full-grown bull can weigh upwards of 2,000 pounds and can run up to forty miles an hour. “ Then he looked up at the extra height of the top rail and said, “The damned things can jump a six-foot fence when they have a mind to.”
“But most of the pastures are fenced with standard barbed wire,” Chuck pointed out. “Does that keep them in?”
“All that keeps them in is that they don’t have any other place they’d rather be. If they want to leave they can just walk right through the barbed-wire fence. But the grass and the water are good here, plenty of hay in the winter, why leave?”
Chuck had a good time that evening and spent the night. In the morning, just as George’s wife Roberta was slipping a second stack of pancakes onto Chuck’s plate, George got a phone call. Afterward he came back in the kitchen with a disgruntled look on his face.
“That was Joe. He’s got a place up by Nellis Creek,” he said to Roberta. “Our buffalo just came through his East pasture. Edna’s got ‘em heading north. I’ve gotta go turn ‘em. Care to come along, Chuck?”
George pulled a leather rifle scabbard off a shelf in the hall closet, put a box of shells into his jacket pocket, whistled up his dog Jigger, and headed out to his Jeep. Chuck jumped into the passenger seat just before George popped the clutch and with a neck-snapping lurch, the old vehicle took off down a dirt path.
As they bounced along, George explained. “Buffalo are migratory animals by instinct. Also matriarchal. The leader of my bunch is an old cow we call Edna. Every spring she decides it’s time to head North and she just takes off and all the rest follow. Like I said, when they’ve got a mind to move, barbed wire doesn’t even slow ‘em down.”
As George said this they came upon a break in the fence. All four wires were broken and there was an obvious, trampled-down track through the prairie grass heading north. Following it, they soon came in sight of the herd in their slow and steady march. George saw a dirt track running parallel to the Buffalo’s direction, took it, and within a few minutes they had overtaken the leader. George pulled up the Jeep, removed a hunting rifle with a scope on it, and laid the weapon down on the hood. He took a few shells out of the ammunition box he’d brought and showed one to Chuck.
“Rubber bullets,” he explained. “I don’t want to hurt her, just give her something to think about.”
He loaded the shells into the rifle’s magazine and cradled the gun with his left hand on the hood of the Jeep. He pressed his cheek to the stock, looked through the scope and waited. Chuck watched Edna with her huge, wooly head swinging slowly back and forth plod steadily toward them. When she was about 50 feet away, George pulled the trigger. As the gun barked, Edna jumped backward about a foot, and then just stood there.
“Did you miss?” Chuck asked.
“Nope. I hit her right between the eyes. With that thick skull of hers, it couldn’t have done her much harm.”
Edna shook her head violently a couple of times as if to clear out the cobwebs, then started toward them again. George levered another shell into the chamber, took careful aim, and shot her again. This time, after a long pause, she turned around and headed back the way she’d come. All the other Buffalo, one-by-one, turned and followed her.
“She’ll take them back to the ranch,” George explained as he unloaded the rifle, checked to make sure it was empty, and then slid it back into the scabbard. “And there they’ll stay for at least another six months.”
“What happens in six months?”
“Fall migration. She’ll bust ‘em out again, this time heading South. And I’ll have to go after her and plunk her again two or three times to get her to turn around and lead ‘em back home. Like I said, the grass and the water are good there, plenty of hay in the winter, why leave?”
*Look in the right-hand column for Tim versus the Tractor.