Every fall, Ranchlands rounds up a herd of over 2,000 freely grazing bison and runs them through corrals in a grueling week of early mornings and late nights. The roundup gives us a chance to assess the health of each bison individually and the condition of the herd as a whole. Collaborating with scientists and veterinarians, we make strategic decisions about managing the animals in a way that will preserve and sustain the 50,000 acres of sagebrush prairie range land that we steward in partnership with the Nature Conservancy.
Laura Mowery, an intern who participated in this year’s bison works, shares some of her thoughts about encountering bison up close for the first time.
The deep, full breaths brushing slowly by my cheeks, the alert and wide eyes staring directly back at me, the thick and wiry hair grazing over my knuckles as I clutched the handle of the gate separating me from the looming beast. I had never seen a bison in person, much less a mere few inches from my face. It was surreal. It was terrifying. It was nothing short of magnificent.
For many people, bison are an animal of history books and tales of old. They represent indigenous peoples, American history and the iconic Wild West. Until only a few weeks ago that’s what they were to me too, but now they are so much more. This November I was lucky to be a part of bison works at Zapata Ranch where I got to help process 2,200 bison over the span of a week. During that time I developed such an incredible appreciation and love of these brilliant creatures.
One of the jobs that I had during the week was opening and closing gates to sort the bison that had already been processed into different pens. A large portion of the job was waiting atop a post for various gate numbers to be shouted to me from inside the bison barn. This meant that I had a good bit of time to sit and watch the bison all around me. It was there that I quickly grew to love how strange bison are in both physical stature and behavior.
At first glance, bison are bizarrely shaped with an angled back that gives them an almost hunchback appearance, with sharply hinged back legs to allow for sheer power when taking off to run. Despite those features, these massive animals are built on a relatively small frame and are therefore relatively light in weight. As a result, bison are able to jump very high and would often stand on top of the large square hay bales in their corrals. When up there eating, or even just standing in their pens, the bison vocalized with low snorts, grunts and grumbles that are far more similar to pigs than cattle.
Categorizing bison according to similar livestock is nearly impossible. As Little Duke said so perfectly, “bison act like goats, react like sheep and sound like pigs,” and really, they do. Bison are so unlike any animal I have experienced in my lifetime, and they have grown to be one of my all time favorites.
Reflecting on my time at bison works, I am in total awe of the experience. I am exceedingly grateful to have had the opportunity to interact so closely with such powerful, intimidating and incredible creatures. It was truly an experience I’ll remember for the rest of my life. If you are ever able to see bison in person, I highly encourage you to take the opportunity. I found being in the presence of such astonishing creatures to be phenomenal, and I have a feeling you might too.
Laura Mowery is currently interning at Ranchlands’ Chico Basin Ranch. She came to us from the Washington, DC area, where she whetted her appetite for working in agriculture at the Frying Pan Farm Park, a community farm with a variety of livestock, including cows, horses and pigs…but no bison.