Like Bison Ballet

Big, sometimes 2,000 pounds. Slow to move. Shaggy. Their heads swivel through heavy summer air as they settle their gaze on you. Buffalo (bison) don’t appear to be candidates for chiffon and ribbons, tutus and pointe shoes.

But buffalo don’t need special shoes to create the illusion of anti-gravity. Form and muscle can propel them six feet skyward and seven forward from a complete standstill. I’ve seen it once, when a bullied bull at Elk Island erupted at a loud diesel truck driving slowly by.  As I pulled forward cautiously behind the truck, the head-swinging bull suddenly burst skyward. He turned midair, landed on front feet, stabbed his horns into a wallow, and finally, twisted upward once more like a one-ton brown tornado.

The bull in the back is not happy.  Not happy at all.

Choreographing a roundup for health care and thinning the herd seems like a death-defying event when your dancers are strong, nimble, and wild inside despite over a century of human intervention. A cowboy adage as worn as old Levi’s jeans says, “You can always get a buffalo to go where a buffalo wants to go.”

But people figured out how to move buffalo thousands of years ago, armed with simple tools, keen observational skills, understanding of bison behavior, institutional memory, and lifelong training and practice.  They wrapped their lives and culture around an animal fulling capable of killing them.

In a collaborative effort, they directed a herd forward through carefully constructed drive lines. One disguised buffalo runner mimicked a lost calf wandering ahead of the herd through a line of waving vegetation anchored in rock piles.  The herd, led by dominant cows, would follow, Under ideal conditions, they would stay within the line of vegetation without spooking and breaking. A blind cliff lay ahead, hidden by an unbroken line to the lands beyond; it looked like there was an out.

When it was too late for the herd to break and run, hidden people created noise, chaos, and a stampede to drive the animals to their deaths and service as food, shelter, utensils, tools, games, and clothing. It did not always work, and people sometimes were injured and killed, but Plains peoples survived this way- and using pens and coulees to trap animals- for thousands of years.

Artist’s rendition buffalo tumbling over a  jump: “Pishkun”, by Tom Joyner. C.M. Russell Museum, Great Falls, MT.

Thousands of years ago, people weren’t seeking blood and DNA samples, inserting detectable chips, and pregnancy checking.  Today, conservation herds as well as ranch herds are managed.  Sometimes a disease leaps into a herd. In some locations, the only management tool is a firearm. At most sites, herds are managed to ensure animal and habitat health on limited land.

Buffalo once roamed freely, and could leave overgrazed areas.  Today, we manage them to ensure herd and environmental health.  Bison at Grasslands National Park,  Photo by 1brettsnyder [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons. 
How do bison managers perform this feat?  According to Ryan at Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan, each site develops its own protocols that fit the facility. On a stormy afternoon, I tagged along with Ryan on the Bison Backstage Tour to see the handling facilities and hear about his approach.

The best I can say is that his approach sounds more like conducting Ravel’s Bolero than a rip-roaring yeeha fest. I was intrigued. I raised and trained my horses and put in a few years as an intern once hoping to become a veterinarian. But I also got slammed into a few chute walls I didn’t clear fast enough during roundups of beef cattle for vaccination and dehorning. I’ve seen bad things happen to horses in trailers.

Our man-made world can be a terrifying place for cornered herd animals. And it can end badly. While use of buffalo jumps, pens, and coulees faded with the introduction of the horse and rifle, we are reviving the approaches to move herds the way people did long ago.

Low-stress livestock handling methods were championed by Dr. Temple Grandin, an American professor who is notably a renowned autism advocate. As a high-functioning autistic, she feels her visual dependence helped her to design livestock chute systems that reduced stress in slaughterhouse animals. Buffalo are not cattle, however, and the entire facility and handling protocol needs to be designed with that in mind.

Bison tend to be ultra-sensitive to everything around them in tight situations…                                                 Tim Frasier, Frasier Bison, LLC


An in-depth description of low-stress bison handling can be found at this website. What you will see quickly is that facility and equipment design is only a fraction of the equation.  Animal sense and respect are the most important elements in the dance.

Ryan brings a lifetime of ranch experience with animals and horses to his work at Grasslands.  He still ranches today. He has developed that intuitive feel for animal mood and behavior, and an instinct that allows him to move on the ground with the animals, only rarely having to make the dive for the wall. He talks about training riders to use weight shifts and pressure to move a horse instead of pulling their head forward, back, and around with a metal bit and spurs.  I know that works. I nod.

Alfalfa cubes.  Don’t get any ideas, park visitors.

At Grasslands, Ryan says animals are lured into the facility instead of chased. Crews are not dressed as a bleating, lost calves. Rather, they bait the animals with alfalfa cubes.

They are moved into the handling pens slowly, and only animals that need to be worked with continue on into the facility; the rest are released through side doors. Ryan tries to keep family groups together.

Procession through the handling equipment is orchestrated with slight movements, without yelling or waving whips or flags. It’s the same principle as moving a horse on a longe line, where your body position tells the horse to speed up or slow down. Ryan says he watches behavior, reacting to separate and gather animals together as needed throughout the day.

The first step is getting animals into the pens.

Even closing the squeeze chute that hugs an animal during health checks is timed carefully. As the animal moves forward, hydraulics and skill ensure an animal feels the reassuring rails before it hits a safety feature designed to protect its head.  This squeeze is not a brutal, crushing experience, and many videos of big wild animals calmly going through health exams shows how they react to it.

The curtain on the left hides vets and other staff from animals.  That’s about all I could operate in this facility.

The hug appears to be reassuring whether you have arms like primates or not. Temple Grandin created the hug machine for herself to deal with autism-related anxiety. I once calmed a distraught disabled girl on a storm-crippled train simply by hugging her. And apparently, it works on bison as well, as long as the arms are mechanical and not those of a potential predator.

Do not hug.  This did not work well for a visitor to Yellowstone National Park in the 1980’s. He put an arm around a bison bull to pose for a photo. The bull was offended.  It did not end well.

I was most surprised that they can safely conduct pregnancy checks on bison using the old-school method I learned: long glove on arm, arm inserted into animal.  I thought this would be the killer- but according to Ryan, not so much. That hug keeps the animals calm.

I imagined a day of herd wrangling with all senses on and functioning would be exhausting. You would run on nerves and adrenaline, but collapse at the end. I asked Ryan how long that day was.  He said support staff stay regular hours, but he often works longer. After talking to him for far longer than the time allotted, I’m not surprised.

Conducting an orchestra that plays dance music for a herd of wild animals is what he has known forever.

You can hear bison ranchers talk about learning to understand these animals in this video; full versions are available at the permanent exhibit, The Bison: American Icon, Heart of Plains Indian Culture, at C.M. Russell Museum in Great Falls, MT. Mobile link to video on YouTube.

And to watch Wild Idea Buffalo use a low-stress method of moving bison to new pastures, watch this video (mobile link to video on YouTube here).

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