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Bison await processing at Theodore Roosevelt National Park during a scheduled roundup on Oct. 14. (Andrew Brown/Forum News Service)

Nearly 400 bison removed from Theodore Roosevelt National Park's South Unit

They entered the paddock as blurs of horns and dark brown fur.

Some of the bison thrashed against the steel walls -- more used to the open plains of North Dakota than the tight confines of the hydraulic-powered cattle chute.

This week, Theodore Roosevelt National Park's staff began a roundup to remove nearly 400 bison from the 110-square-mile South Unit.

The roundup is part of a regularly-scheduled reduction of bison population to maintain the health of the park's animals and the grassland that they feed on. An estimated 200 bison will remain at the park when the roundup is complete.

"If left to their own devices, they would keep populating," said Linda Morton, a park ranger. "We have to balance all of the populations."

The roundup commenced on Sunday, when the staff began gathering the bison into larger herds, and will continue until Thursday or Friday.

Morton said the national park has been performing bison roundups since the 1950s. She said she has seen old videos of park employees herding bison across the plains using horses and pickup trucks that bounced as they drove across the rough ground.

Today, the technique looks a little different. In place of pickup trucks and cowboys on horses, the park utilizes a helicopter to push the bison toward a corral located just north of the Fryburg exit on Interstate 94. That corral was built in 1992 to assist the staff in controlling the bison and wild horse populations.

By early Tuesday, the helicopter had already made seven flights across the national park, each trip taking several hours at a time.

"The helicopter is a very effective tool to cover that type of ground," Morton said.

The pilot flying the helicopter for the roundup has worked at the park on several occasions before and has experience driving bison and other large animals at other parks in the west, Morton said. Next week, that same pilot will be performing a similar roundup at Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota.

Once the animals are in the corral, park service employees push the bison through the 10-foot -high walls -- made of telephone poles and two-by-six pieces of lumber -- using canoe-like paddles and a retrofitted front-end loader.

Dozens of park employees working the roundup were as silent as possible. The calmer the bison are, the easier they are to handle.

At times, the only sound that could be heard was the slamming of horns and hooves against the steel paddock as the bison were squeezed into smaller and smaller pathways.

Park employees kept watch from catwalks above the corral, coaxing the bison ever forward, still careful not to get too close to the potentially deadly animals.

"The toughest animals to work with are the big, old bulls," Morton said.

"They look docile grazing out in the park, but they're not," she said, as another bison crashed into the chute.

The bison that are captured and squeezed into the chute are checked by veterinarians to determine the animal's weight, age and health. They are then given an ear tag and moved towards the loading dock.

When the animals are released from their hydraulic-powered restraints, the bison charge forward, like race horses leaving the gates at the Kentucky Derby. They are then separated by age and sex or, in the case of large bulls, sent straight into an awaiting cattle trailers.

Morton compared the system of corralling, tagging and testing the bison to a baseball lineup.

"You have the batter and one on deck," Morton said, as bison waiting for their turn in line left out guttural grunts from the neighboring pen.

The estimated 400 bison that are to be removed from the national park will be given to InterTribal Buffalo Council, an organization that represents 58 Native American tribes in 19 states. Some of the bison captured at the park will be sent as far as Oklahoma.

"We are doing the best we can to provide our tribes with buffalo," said Lisa Colombe, a technical service provider for the InterTribal Buffalo Council.

The council attempts to provide their participating tribes with all of the animals they need to maintain or grow their herds, Colombe said.

Colombe said that many of the participating tribes use their bison herds to provide food for Head Start programs, colleges and elementary schools on the reservations. The council takes care of the trucking and health inspections needed to transport the bison, she said.

"A lot of planning and decision making goes into it," Colombe said. "We try to place the right number of animals with the right demographics."

Colombe said that for many of the tribes, the truck loads of bison are a spiritual experience.

"There is a lot of prayers sent up," Colombe said.

Colombe said part of the ceremony at the Rosebud Nation in South Dakota, which she belongs to, involves people burning tobacco and sage to celebrate the bison.

The National Park Service bases the number of bison they allow at the park on wildlife studies performed in the early 1990s, said Dean Wyckoff, the chief park ranger and director of the roundup.

Wyckoff said those studies took into account not just the health of the bison, but the plant life and other animals that call the national park home.

"These roundups are very important for maintaining the plains," Wyckoff said.

Bill Whitworth, the park's chief resource officer, said the lack of natural predators to the bison, elk and wild horses in the park requires federal employees to reduce their numbers by sending the animals to other parts of the country, or in the case of the elk, killing them within the park.

"We try to stay ahead of it and it works out pretty well," Whitworth said.

"We get rid of surplus animals and recipients get good, healthy bison," Whitworth said. "It's good for everyone involved."

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