When the bison first come in, you don’t see them. What you see is a cloud of dust, what you feel is sandpaper when you blink, and what you smell is musty breath coming out of their nostrils and crystalizing in the early November freezing temperatures. You don’t listen to their snorts, but to the quick and quiet commands of your co-workers, communicating instructions from crouched positions behind gates, all but unrecognizable beneath their outerwear and a solid centimeter of dirt. The objective is to create a minimally stressful environment for the bison, and to do so it’s imperative to stay silent and unseen, but as I look up at those around me, with so much crud in the creases of their faces it looks like vaudeville makeup, it’s pretty hard not to laugh.
Staying out of sight as bison move through the pens.
They used to bring them in on horseback. They used to saddle up close to fifty horses, a second string for each rider, and gallop at full speed behind a herd of 2,500 wild bison. From what I’ve heard, rounding them up back then took close to a week, and still they only managed to gather about seventy percent of the herd when it was time for their yearly checkup. Now it’s only a few hours before the bison are in and the work can begin, because Ranchlands uses a single engine plane piloted by Duke Phillips, coupled with several people on dirt bikes—armed with walkie talkies in leather holsters and looking like some cross between Mad Max and Blade Runner, only cowboys.
As Duke circles in his plane overhead, the bison make their way towards the pens.
At the Medano-Zapata Ranch, Ranchlands manages a hundred thousand acres owned by The Nature Conservancy, and acts as a steward for every bison, elk, falcon, seasonal creek, and prickly pear that comprises the ecosystem on this swathe of Colorado’s San Luis Valley. Possibly the most unique feature of this land is the conservation herd of bison that graze it freely for three hundred and sixty days of the year. But Ranchlands’ philosophy is a calculated cross between hands-off holistic management and hands on micromanagement. Unlike many of the wild bison herds in America, this one is thoroughly inspected for one week out of the year. During this process each bison is studied individually by a veterinarian, several biologists, and a few lucky people like me–members of the Ranchlands crew that have the unique experience of helping with the annual roundup.
This year I got to assist senior conservation ecologist at The Nature Conservancy, Chris Pague, in collecting tail hair samples for DNA testing. Another rare feature of the Medano-Zapata bison herd is its genetic composition. While nearly every other wild bison herd carries a high percentage of bovine DNA due to their exposure to cattle, Chris estimates that of the bison Ranchlands protects, only .5% have any residual bovine DNA, a mere five animals in the herd. Furthermore, he anticipates this number will drop to zero in the next two years as a result of focused genetic sampling. At the same time as we collected tail hair samples, each bison was micro-chipped, weighed, aged, and vaccinated by a different member of the team, all working with a fervent commitment to efficiency, both for their safety and for that of the animals. On average, each bison spends between five seconds and a minute in the squeeze chute, a hydraulic machine designed by Temple Grandin to reduce stress when processing livestock. That’s one elegant minute for each person to gather their data or deliver their vaccine before that bison can return to the herd to roam undisturbed for another year.
Frankie with a hair sample collected from a heifer calf’s tail.
The premium put on safety and efficiency is due wholly to Ranchlands’ skillful and professional management, but the patience, care, and success of the entire week is due to the work of each and every person on the Ranchlands team. People who for most of the year work as wranglers and leatherworkers, cooks and interns, arrive and work together with a cohesion only achieved by a genuine love for what they do. Some might liken it to a well oiled machine, each person a different cog working together to make it run. But to me it was more like working on a ship—leagues away and almost completely detached from everything else I knew. And it’s not that I couldn’t stay connected to the outside world, it’s that I ceased wanting to. Not just for that week with the bison, but for the whole season we worked in an isolated, harsh, and staggeringly beautiful remote corner of the world, with a crew that numbered around sixteen. Each of us responsible for our own part of the rigging and working for the common goal of keeping it afloat—where no one’s job description includes handling the situation when the horses escaped in the middle of the night, or when a truck got stuck in the sand, or when the water shut off to the kitchen and we were ferrying buckets in to do the dishes, but it became all of our responsibilities. As were the birthdays, the costume contests, the games of spoons that were a full-contact sport, the cactus spines in the back only a friend could reach, the kind of laughter that hurts your stomach and makes you cry, and the tears of pain that come so hard they make you laugh.
People often ask me, with an air of assumption, “Wasn’t it lonely?” and I can’t seem so make them understand that couldn’t be farther from the truth. This summer I was surrounded, supported, and motivated by people constantly. People who know the strange euphoria that accompanies a merciless job, and that when things go from bad to worse, they actually get funny. People who imbued me with courage and responsibility, and trusted me to succeed, and people who define success not by doing a job perfectly, but by still having the will to succeed after failing repeatedly. People that give new meaning to the words “hard work” and “long hours.” People that have taught me so much that I now reserve the word “teacher” for only the most passionate and poised mentors in my life, nearly all of whom are employees of Ranchlands.
By Frankie Zwick. Frankie was an intern at Zapata Ranch in 2015 and returned this summer as a wrangler.