In my last post I described the rounding up of the buffalo herd as witnessed by some 15,000 visitors, including my husband and me, at Custer State Park in September. The next part that happens is the processing of each animal. The whole purpose of the roundup is to maintain the wellness of the herd. With that in mind, every animal is weighed, examined by a veterinarian, and given vaccinations. Calves are branded, and it’s also determined which ones will be sold. This is how the park makes sure that it can sustain a healthy herd. The number to be sold varies each year, depending on how much rainfall there has been and the quality of available grassland; the land alone must be enough to sustain the herd, because the park does not provide any additional food supply. The sale of the buffalo is done by auction at the end of November; the proceeds are impressive – last year’s sale raised some $250,000 for the state parks. Who buys these animals? Other parks around the country buy them, as well as ranchers and meat producers.
There are groups of buffalo that are actually rounded up ahead of time. We didn’t know this before we arrived at the park, but three days before the roundup we saw them already in the corrals. Some research has revealed that some animals are rounded up ahead of time to reduce their level of stress and agitation. Once the animals are rounded up, they are left to settle down for a week or so before they are processed. These are the ones that are processed on the day of the roundup; it gives the visitors a good look at what happens after the herd is corralled, and how the animals are handled as they are pushed through the chutes.
It’s hard to describe the complex system of fences and gates coming off from the large corral. The buffalo are herded into a series of pens that become smaller as the animals are moved through from one to the next. The final holding pen is small, and the buffalo do not like it; they become visibly agitated and aggressive, and since these were the bison that had been rounded up days earlier, it’s easy to understand why the handlers give them time to settle down. From here the animals are pushed single file into a chute, where a gate closes between each animal so they cannot fight with one another. They are finally pushed into various other corrals or returned to the park, depending on the animal.
It was all fascinating, and we were fortunate to stumble accidentally into some great bleacher seats, right at the top with a pretty good view into the holding pens and the entrance to the chutes. We didn’t know anything beforehand about the process, and we both agreed that we have new respect for the power and potential danger of these animals, regardless of their size.
The most agitated and aggressive buffalo of the day was an average sized cow, who simply refused to go through the entrance into the chutes. As the animals are pushed toward that gate, the available space gets smaller and smaller. Most of the bison resign themselves to the fact that they must go forward, and they cooperate, more or less. But this cow was tenacious and stubborn, and I couldn’t believe how she could flip herself around, making a U-turn in a space that was smaller than herself. The handlers tried and tried to coax, cajole, and push her through, and time and time again she resisted. Several times they released her back into the next-larger size holding pen, putting her back in with a few other animals.
But every time, she would twist herself around, jump, fight against other bison, or perform other various gymnastics to make the task impossible for the handlers, who are all park employees with lots of experience. During this whole process, the experts were keeping a sharp eye on her health and stamina, and when she began to stumble from exhaustion, they simply released her back into the larger herd, hoping that she would be able to settle down and be more cooperative after a few days of rest.
On the other hand, we also witnessed a few very large bulls who obviously had the size and power to challenge the handlers at any step along the way, and some of them just trotted forward and entered the chutes like well behaved school children.
One didn’t like the visitors who were gathered around the fence taking pictures, and he gave a scary warning charge for them to get out of his way. There were a few “mama bison” that had become separated from their calves, and their agitation was hard to watch, as they tried to force themselves back through the corral fences to get to their young; they, too, would fight off any other animals that approached, and we wondered if the terribly uncooperative cow was experiencing that same kind of trauma.
Clearly, we learned, it’s not necessarily the comparative size of the buffalo that makes it dangerous. They ALL have the potential to be dangerous; they can run up to 45 mph, and they can jump as high as six feet. We have visited Custer State Park many times, and have seen many examples of visitors stupidly getting too close, or trying with their cars to force the buffalo out of the road so they can proceed along their way. We have also heard stories of visitors who have been killed, or cars that have been trampled – all due to provocation. Buffalo are not the ones to start trouble, and so they appear to be gentle and not unlike cattle. But after watching the roundup and processing of some of these great beasts, I certainly have a new understanding of their power and capability. They are beautiful, magnificent, and a joy to watch, from a safe distance.
Life is good.