Wrangling bison: A delicate dance with 2,000 pounds and four hooves
As the small, all-terrain vehicle drew near, the buffalo snorted and then lowered its massive head. It shuffled its feet, kicking up red dust into the Western North Carolina wind.
“Don’t worry,” said Mike Ellington, manager of a buffalo ranch in Buncombe County and former rodeo clown. “He’s doesn’t want to fight. But he’s getting ready in case we want to.”
Ellington pulled the small vehicle to a stop on the hillside, spotted with patches of grass, haystacks and lumbering buffalo. The nose of the vehicle was pointed downhill — a fail-safe, Ellington explained, in case we had to start rolling quickly.
Ellington’s ranch hand, a young, bright-eyed cowboy named Matt Payne, began to toss nuggets of food from a five-gallon bucket towards the animals. One landed next to the biggest buffalo out of a field of several hundred.
“That one we call ‘Terminator’,” Ellington said, estimating its weight at more than 2,000 pounds. He recounted the story of the time they took the Terminator out of the open pasture and put him in the corral — a small enclosure surrounded by four-inch thick bars.
The result was twisted, steel fences and gates.
“Buffalos are wild animals,” he said, “They don’t like to be locked up.”
The large buffalo walked over toward the source of the alimentary nuggets. As he approached, the other buffalo circling us scattered to allow him first chance at the food. Terminator’s head was as large as an oven. Well after the rest of the buffalo’s body stops growing the skull continues to grow for up to a decade. Younger male bison actually look awkward with their massive bodies and small heads.
The skull is not only huge, it’s thick. The standard caliber bullet used to slaughter meat cattle is insufficient to penetrate the skull of a full-grown buffalo — it just bounces off. A larger diameter bullet and higher powered rifle must be used instead.
Ellington described the litany of impressive characteristics pertinent to the buffalo, more specifically referred to as the American Bison. It sounded like he was describing the ultimate herbivore.
He claimed the buffalo could run up to 40 miles per hour, jump six feet high and, as Terminator had demonstrated, bend steel with unbridled strength. He said the buffalos’ trachea is roughly four times larger than that of a cow. He added that you may think the bison are winded when they stick out their tongues but are actually only making room for more air to enter the lungs.
The animals are also highly adaptable to varying climates, an attribute left over from an era when the buffaloes proliferated to fill a habitat that spanned the United States and reached into Canada and Mexico.
Snow from blizzards in the wintertime that lands on the Buffalo’s coat, a combination of wool and hair, doesn’t even melt because of their efficient insulation. When the temperature drops to 40 below the animals barely notice, and likewise when temperatures surpassed 100 degrees in the summertime the beasts can be seen basking in the sun.
But, they’re not all speed, toughness and brawn. The male bison are also persistent courters. They will follow a female for up to a week, shielding her from the rest of the pack and chasing off other males. They are discreet love makers, and it is rare to ever catch the pair in the act, Ellington said.
The result of all that courting is also impressive. Buffaloes birth much easier than other animals such as cows, which, Ellington said, has caused more than one buffalo hobbyist to call up the ranch and ask Ellington if he would be interested in taking on a few extra bison after that hobbyist’s small heard seemingly tripled overnight.
The offspring are born weighing about 40 pounds, and within an hour of being alive, they can run long distances — an essential trait in a pack herd that may stampede at any moment, as is the ability to withstand the harshest of obstacles. One young buffalo on the ranch had broken its neck and was left to lie, and possibly die, in a small corral. For several days, Ellington didn’t have the opportunity to put it down, but when he came back to finish the task, the animal was walking around again, only now with its head permanently cocked to the side.
Even the old rodeo bull rider, who spent his life taunting some of the biggest, meanest bulls around said he wouldn’t ever dream of getting on the back of a full-grown American Bison. Ellington described the species best, using his past life as a cattle rancher and rodeo buff as a point of reference.
“Buffalo,” he put it plainly, “are twice as big as a cow and 10 times as strong.”
Keep in mind, they also have the ability to kick sideways.
Ellington’s vast store of bison trivia is based partly on his own observations as a bison handler for the past two years on the picturesque Carolina Bison ranch northwest of Asheville. But some of the traits he described, like jumping six-feet-high, he has read about and only hopes he won’t have to address.
Although the pasture is surrounded by high, electrified fences, they are there just there to keep the giant creatures honest, Ellington said. If the buffalo want to roam, they will. The only guaranteed manner of preserving the herd within the confines of a fence is to make them want to stay, and that means keeping them happy.
In that department, the ranch-owner, Frank King, spares no expense. For example, to feed the small heard of buffalo for only three months out of this past summer King spent more than $50,000 on feed.
“They eat better than me and you,” said Ellington.