After one look at the processing facilities at the Wilder, Duke IV said, “This would make a pretty damn good tree house if it had a big rope ladder.” Very apropos, since the corrals were a patchwork of plywood, old barn wood and telephone poles, long heavy gates that were very hard to move, a raceway that held only 3 animals at a time, and a weird design of pens that didn’t make sense as to how the bison would flow through. Different than anything we’d ever seen, especially the Medano pens that are made of 9 foot steel pipe fences.
Brett Rusher and I met many weeks ago to go over the facilities, and he did a thorough job of patching, refastening, and greasing gates, so that they were in tip-top (as much as they could be) condition by processing day. We spent a lot of time thinking about how we would bring the bison in from the pasture, how we’d bring them into the corrals from the long alleyways, where the sorts would go, how we would get them back across the highway to their pasture, etc. Our neighbor Ernie told us stories of previous people’s wrecks and difficult times, which had us pretty serious about making a good plan. Since we had never worked bison in these pens before, we knew that if our plan wasn’t good enough, things would go sour really fast. And that was something that we didn’t want to happen, being new around here with all the neighbors’ eyes pouring down on us. No way. It was in the back of our minds the whole long way up as Duke, Madi and I drove the long road from the Chico with motorcycles, horses, dogs and bedrolls.
On that rainy Monday, with a nine person crew made up of Nick, Brett, Stephanie, Callie, Kaitlyn, Caleb, and the three of us, we set out early. Duke and I were on bikes and everyone else was horseback–with Nick and Madi on young horses to boot. The challenge was going to be getting the entire herd across the highway from their pasture to the side where the facilities were. It was uphill to the gate with a fence on both sides paralleling the highway; they had never been across it before and there was a lot of traffic on the road. In addition, the Cannonball Ranch, miles down the road, where a few hundred Native Americans were camped out demonstrating against a proposed gas pipeline. We were sure there were elements of the national media lurking around. Just what we needed if things went wrong. Which they did of course, right off the bat.
Brett had gathered the herd into a field right across the highway, and we didn’t take that long to put them together. We had Brett’s father in the cake truck pulling the lead along toward the gate and we figured that once they entered the highway lane, they’d just shoot across and through the other gate behind him. Wrong. The entire 900 head mob had walked right up to the highway gate and as soon as the lead animal went through the gate, he (she? it?) rapidly turned and went straight down the highway toward the Cannonball demonstration. For no reason at all, that we could see. Duke and I saw this immediately and, being on bikes so that we could get to hot spots fast, we both took off to get through a gate and across a field to try to get ahead of them. As we were sailing across the pasture toward them, I saw that now there was a large bunch of bison following the lead animal, and Caleb, who was holding traffic up on the highway, was not able to hold them. They broke through at a dead run with what looked like the entire herd behind. Bad. The worst thing that could have happened. The trouble was, there was a fence between me and them, they were running and I didn’t know the terrain ahead of me, yet I had to go fast. About the time we got to the middle of this big field, Duke and I looked back at the gate and saw that a big part of the herd had turned and was going the other way down the highway, also at a run. He turned to go address this new turn of events and I was left alone building speed instinctively even though I was already going too fast. The lead had gone over a hill and all I could see was a big bunch of animals streaming over the hill toward where they didn’t need to be going. All I could think about was all the demonstrators having a herd of bison come screaming down upon them, and the cameras catching every move and sending it out over the airwaves making us a global sensation in seconds.
I wasn’t sure if it was the rain drops clouding my glasses or heat and steam from my heavy, (almost panicked!?) breathing. Suddenly, at the bottom of a draw that I was fast approaching I saw a big breakaway with a 4 or 5 foot drop off into a gully and I knew that I was going to hit no matter how fast I put on the brakes. And I did, but not until I had slowed down a lot. I didn’t hit all that hard but next thing I knew, there I was laying on the ground, the big bike on its side and even though I couldn’t see the bison herd, I knew what they were doing. Luckily I was able to get the bike started and off I went again, this time a bit more cautious, and finally caught up to them. There were a lot of vehicles that had pulled off the side of the road with people getting out of their cars with their cameras recording every second of what was about to happen. As I was climbing over the fence to try to turn the lead, one of these people came over, a middle-aged man, and was trying to tell me how cool this was and how he could help me and I don’t know what else. He had long hair, shorts and was barefoot, is about all I can remember, besides telling him to get back in his car or the bison were going to hurt him real bad. He gleefully skipped back to his car and began toting his horn and waving and hollering at them out the window.
We always need luck. By the time I caught up to them, they had run a mile or so and had tired, so I was able to stop them and turn them around, and as luck would have it, there was a gate that allowed me to get behind them and begin the trip back over the hill to where the proper gate was and whatever else was happening on the other side of the hill with the rest of the herd. I had to be careful as I pushed because of all the vehicles pulled over with people walking around, motors running and a group of bison with a lot of adrenaline running around them. But slowly I kept them moving, threading them between the cars. I couldn’t raise anyone on my phone until finally Caleb answered saying that he’d get everyone organized to push them through the gate. I just hoped that the rest of the mob was under control. As I crested the last hill, I saw the entire herd on the correct side of the fence. Duke and company had gotten them all across. All we had left was to do the same with these, which we did after a little running around.
Man, that was close, was all I could think. My hands were still shaking. My face numb, my legs and arms burning from the exertion. All the dirty words and name calling I had been hurling at them in my head and into the air now melted into a sense of relief that I have not felt in a long time. I had been sure that this was not going to end well and South Dakota and beyond would soon hear about the new guys with the buffalo that got away. I just sat there and waited for Duke to come over to tell me about what had happened in my absence.
He told me that they had had about the same thing happen with a lot of animals going different directions at one time. He had gotten back to the gate into the pasture we came from right before they entire herd arrived and lost only two. We were lucky he can ride fast and even luckier that he can anticipate and reacts as fast as he does, or the entire herd would have been in the original field, then making it very difficult, if not impossible to bring them back later. We were lucky that Brett sent Callie and Caleb down the fence at a full run. We were lucky that Brett’s dad was able to entice them across the road. We were just plain lucky all around.
We must of gotten all the bad luck and funk out of the way because the rest of the time was about the smoothest we have ever had with bison. We had made one mistake, which was assuming that the lead would just pop across the highway and through the other gate, and so hadn’t placed people there to ensure this would happen.
We moved them slowly across the small trap they were in and through a couple of gates and into the long alleyway that led into the corrals where we had hay and water ready for them. We ate lunch and took time to restore our confidence that things would now go better. Once jobs had been outlined to everyone, the squeeze warmed up and everyone was at their stations, Nick and I drove into the alley and brought down the first little group of 30 or so into the pens. The gates closed one by one behind them as Caleb and Brett pushed them toward the pen leading into the raceway. With Duke at the chute controls and Madi at the computer, the first bison entered the raceway and we were under way. This procedure continued all afternoon. What I couldn’t believe is how well this “treehouse” worked. We parted about three to six head at a time into the crowding pen and with hardly any pressure, the bison would enter the raceway, one by one. All afternoon this happened, and the entire next day as we pushed them through.
This little set of pens worked like no other I had ever been around. It enabled us to finish in record time so we could get these animals back to where they belonged – in the open range pasture, their home. We don’t know if it was the angle the fences hit the raceway, or direction the raceway faced, or what, but whatever it was, it worked.
Duke and Madi weighed every animal, recorded its age, and sorted the different groups into calves, yearling heifers and the older females and bulls. It took us a day and a half. The next day Duke, Madi and I were on the road again headed back home. It had been a good run, even with all the excitement.