By Ron Stauffer
TULSA, Okla. — It’s a cold and foggy morning at the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, where cowboys work for the second day in a row in their week-long annual bison roundup.
For the past three weeks, they’ve used four-wheelers and pickup trucks to round up the nearly 1,500 bison that call the nature preserve in northern Osage County home. The animals will be counted, weighed, and inoculated for brucellosis (also called “Bang’s disease”). Some will be culled for sale, and this year, ranch hands are on the lookout for any exhibiting pink eye.
About 70 miles from Tulsa, the nature preserve is operated by The Nature Conservancy and is one of many they manage across the world. At 39,450 acres, Tallgrass is by far the largest of the six they run in Oklahoma. The Conservancy’s motto is “saving the last wild places,” and they have multiple full-time staff at Tallgrass, including ranch hands, biologists, an attorney, and a foreman who lives on the preserve, all dedicated to the cause.
The cowboys pile into their pickups and whistle and bang on the sides of their trucks to keep the herd moving. Working from 6:00 a.m. until dark, they use paddles and cattle prods to move the animals into a series of chutes for processing. Grunting and snorting, the bison emit a low bellowing sound as bits of fur blow around the paddock.
This is noisy and dirty work. It’s also dangerous. The bulls have sharp horns that can easily gore the workers and are liable to attack without notice.
“Oh yeah, I got stuck a couple of years ago,” says Perry Collins, the ranch foreman. “They’ll just turn a head in the chute and stick you.” He pulls up his shirt, revealing two silver-dollar-sized scars below his ribs, illustrating his own first-hand experience.
Ideally, every bison in the preserve will be processed. However, there a few clever ones who find a way to escape detection each year. Usually, these are old males who “know the drill,” says Michael Temper, the preserve’s director of science and stewardship. “They’ll go down in some canyon or brambly draw and wait for us to go by.” The ones that evade the ranch hands normally hide for just a year or two, Today, however, one bull with a big surprise awaits.
Using a “wand” (a device that looks like a beige ping-pong paddle), Collins scans one bull’s head and neck to collect data from a microchip embedded in its head. Kim Holladay, a field biologist, reads the data and announces: “Six years. We have two years of data on him and nothing since.”
“Wow, an eight-year-old male and he’s been hiding for six years?” Temper asks. “I don’t know if that’s a record, but six years is a long time,” says Harvey Payne, the preserve’s director, who has been working for the Conservancy before the preserve was opened. “Yeah, it’s a record,” decides Temper. The bull, which weighs 3,324 pounds, is inoculated and set loose. He runs from the chute and heads for the range.
Inoculation efforts are crucial, according to Payne, not only for the safety of the preserve’s herd but also for their neighbors. Bang’s disease, while blood-borne, is a highly infectious disease that can travel across herds and fence lines. When a Bang’s outbreak occurs, he says, a lot of cows lose their calves, and this spreads beyond the preserve.
“We want them to stay wild,” Payne says. “We only do this because we have to. We have neighbors who ranch, and even though these are wild animals, they could spread Bang’s disease.”
Impressively, the preserve has had a perfect record during its nearly 30 years of operation. “We’ve never had a case of Bang’s, and we want to keep it that way,” says Bob Briggs, a ranch hand.
Beginning with a herd of only 500, the conservancy has increased that number to 1,500 head. With no brucellosis outbreaks and a three-fold increase in herd size in just three decades, the Conservancy is likely on their way to accomplishing their mission of “saving the last places,” at least at Tallgrass.
[Note: this is not my original reporting. It was an assignment where I was provided several pages of material including stats, quotes, and more, and I was tasked with editing it down to a short, readable feature story.]