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WWA Panel: Returning Buffalo to the Plains

WWA Panel: Returning Buffalo to the Plains

The Western Writers of America conference in Billings, Montana this year offered several informative panels on various topics. “Returning Buffalo to the Plains” was the topic, moderated by Bill Markley, with Kathleen O’Neal Gear, archaeologist and historian, along with her husband W. Michael Gear, archaeologist and award-winning author, who have been raising bison for 25 years in the Owl Creek Mountains of northern Wyoming.  Gervase Hittle worked as foreman/manager of Dan O’Brien’s Wildidea Buffalo Ranch located on the Cheyenne River.

Red Canyon Ranch, Thermopolis, Wyoming. W. MICHAEL GEAR AND KATHLEEN O’NEAL GEAR

The buffalo have a long and storied history. North American bison fur that had been woven into wool was discovered in Iceland as far back as 1300 AD. The estimated numbers of bison that thrived on the grasses of the great plains was estimated to be around 70 million. By 1800, 50-65 million, 1883 at 456 million, and by the 1870s the Europeans had discovered buffalo hide for industrial products. The railroads were in place to begin transporting and supporting the rise of the hide trade. Buffalo Bill puts them in his wild west show and takes them all over the world, raising an awareness and fascination for the animals. By 1930s there were 30,000 in North America, about a 50/50 split between public versus private owners. Today, there are approximately 400,000 in private herds alone.

Cattle ranchers often times entertain the thought of including bison in their herds, “Because you know beef, you don’t know buffalo,” says Kathleen. “Bison are not worked physically. It’s more of a chess game.”  She explained that cattle ranchers are able to plan their week. They get up on Monday to round up the herd, and then on Tuesday and Wednesday brand, doctor sick cows, administer vaccine in that same week. “With buffalo, you might be able to work them by Friday, if you’re lucky.”

Herd dynamics are very important and the social structure is not broken, as in beef producers when the calves are taken from their mothers and shipped to market. When raising buffalo, the cow/calf pairs are never separated. A yearling calf is able to return and be re-introduced to the herd.

Custer State Park

The Gear’s have discovered amazing intelligence in their yearlings from their bottle fed babies. They respond to names and understand commands. They figure out how to open gate latches. The herd uses whistles and tweets to communicate, louder bleats can express fear or joy. They are susceptible to the same diseases as beef cattle, which poses a problem with groups that want to recreate the open grazing of the northern Plains grasslands and re-introduce the animals that once roamed freely there. Their purpose is to force ranchers off of the critical habitat, but they propose no handling facilities which is a detrimental plan to the survival of the the majestic bison. Un-vaccinated animals could potentially create a huge disease reservoir and wipe out bison as well as cattle herds within an entire region. It would be detrimental to the bison and beef industries.

Western Writers of America boasts historians, nonfiction authors, young adult, romance writers, songwriters, poets, and screenwriters for film and television within its 650 members. We all have one thing in common—our work in every medium is set in the ever-changing American West. For more information go here Join us in Tuscon, Arizona in June 19-22, 2019.

Natalie Bright is an author, blogger and speaker. She writes stories set in the west for children and for adults. She blogs every Monday at about story craft, and for articles about the Texas Panhandle and writing life check out her blog Prairie Purview, located on the home page of her website. Click on the books tab at the top for more information about her books.