Bison Roundup 2012

Last week, I got to help our Niobrara Valley Preserve staff round up and sort bison from the Preserve’s east bison pasture.  Ok, I actually only helped with the sorting part because the bison were already in the corral by the time I got there…

Richard Egelhoff, our bison manager, had decided that, even with good grass regrowth this fall, we were going to have to reduce the herd size in order to get them through the winter.  His plan was to sort off the yearling and two-year-old bison and keep the rest.  Many of  bison to be sold would have been sold anyway, but not until November.  Richard hopes that shipping them off early will save enough forage to keep the rest of the herd fed.  In total, the east herd was reduced from 475 animals to 355.

The corral system for the east bison herd is essentially a series of gates along a chute.  The process starts by moving a group of bison from the larger corral into the chute.  Once there, gates are opened and closed to let a few bison at a time down the chute until they are finally winnowed down to a single animal (or a few of the same kind).  At that point, Richard opens one of two gates at the end, and the bison either goes left (back to the pasture) or right (into the sale pen).

If you’ve ever been to similar event with a corral full of cattle, it’s a noisy dusty mess.  With bison, it’s dusty (especially in a drought) but not noisy.  Bison mainly communicate with a series of low grunts.  Because of that, there’s no loud bawling of mothers and calves or bellowing of bulls – just the pounding of lots of bison feet on the dirt, accentuated by grunts and the occasional BANG of a gate.  It can be a violent process at times, as bison ram into each other or into gates – they ARE wild animals, after all – but we tried to get them through as quickly and calmly as we could.  They’re amazingly tough animals.

The bison were pushed down to the corral last Wednesday afternoon and the sorting was finished shortly after lunchtime on Thursday, so the “keepers” spent less than a day in the corral before they were back in their pasture.  The bison selected for sale were run through the chutes one more time on Friday morning so the neighborhood vet could check their tag numbers (little clips on their ears) or add a tracking number to any that were missing one.  That number is required to be on any animals moved across state lines so that a buyer can track health records for each individual animal.

Now if we can get a few more rains, maybe we can grow enough grass to keep those bison happy and healthy until next spring.  By then their 7,200 acre pasture should have plenty of grass again.  Come on rain!

Below is a series of photos from last week’s roundup.  You can click on an image to see a larger version of it, then click on the arrows to move through the remaining photos.  When you’re done, just close the window by clicking on the X in the top left corner.  To see more on this subject, click HERE to see a short story from the Omaha World Herald, along with fantastic photos and video by Alyssa Schukar.

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is an ecologist and Eastern Nebraska Program Director for The Nature Conservancy. He supervises the management and restoration of approximately 4,000 acres of land in central and eastern Nebraska - primarily along the central Platte River. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press.
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12 Responses to Bison Roundup 2012

  1. This has nothing whatsoever to do with bison but is in reference to a previous post. In writing of the after effects of fire at Niobrara (which we visited a couple years ago) you wrote of the effect of fire on sumac and erosion after the burning of cover. These are two things we have worked with. Sumac – my wife’s study of sumac at Kasota Prairie (just north of Mankato MN) coincided with a planned burn which burned through much of an small sumac grove. The result was that the following year there was a great profusion of new sumac shoots even beyond the boundaries of the old grove.

    Observations over the years of futile attempts (and very inconsistent management) at a nearby prairie which at one time showed great promise for revitalization encouraged sumac growth and did nothing to slow the expansion of junipers into grassland. After almost 20 years the place is pretty much a disaster. Great energy spent cutting sumac and junipers several times was wasted by failure to follow up with fire to control young junipers (now twenty feet tall) and the use of herbicide (glove of death) to control the expanding sumac.

    Erosion. We measured erosion at Blood Run in Iowa (NW corner) over a three year period. We used erosion pins and measured to the millimeter. Burning did increase erosion on a steep slope slightly but the overall effect was to improve the cover the next year. As for trails, our experience with the enthusiastic use of fire by the “park guys” was to increase trail erosion considerably and to reduce the undergrowth of the oak/hickory woods to nothing in some areas. This is their attempt to control rampant honeysuckle invasion (an earlier administration had imported the honeysuckle for landscaping). With this year’s drought there are still large areas with no vegetation growing on the surface at all. They like to burn, but DNR education in ecology and the the ecology of fire seems to be absent.

  2. James McGee says:

    Honeysuckle and Common Buckthorn shade out everything. If you remove these invasive species, the lack of vegetation will cause huge erosion problems. This is the reason seeding of native species like; bottlebrush grass, wood Reed, and native sedges are so important when restoring an oak woodland.

    James

  3. melmannphoto says:

    I’ve heard bison are notorious for just walking through gates and fences so this corral must be pretty stout. That’s a great experience and needs to be publicized so people realize bison didn’t recover their numbers simply by being left alone. Managing them and their prairie must go hand in hand for success to follow.
    Thanks for sharing.

  4. Patrick Swanson says:

    Chris, I’m curious about the long term vision for the niobrara preserve after this experience. It would seem that the bison might need a larger pasture to avoid the possibility of having too much of it burned by any one wildfire. Is the reason for the current pasture size related more to the expense of installing fencing, or the relative income generated by bison versus leasing grazing land to other ranchers, or some other reason?

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Patrick, you’re absolutely right – it’s a ripe time to re-evaluate the direction and vision of the Preserve. Those discussions are going strong right now. As we iron things out, I’ll try to pass along what gets decided.

  5. James McGee says:

    Hey Chris, Do you guys sell Bison steaks mail order? I really miss the great steaks, ribs, etc. I had when I was in western Nebraska. I’ve never had better anywhere.

    James

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Sorry James, we’re not into that business.

      • James McGee says:

        Then what happens to the buffalo you cull?

        • Chris Helzer says:

          Various options, depending upon the time and market. Some go to other bison herds around the country, others are sold to people who then market the meat. I don’t know all the details, but we’re not really well placed to do direct marketing of bison meat ourselves. Too bad – there’s good money in it!

          • James McGee says:

            “Too bad — there’s good money in it!”
            Especially right now. The price of Beef is at a record high.
            I was thinking you might want to do a shameless plug for the local companies that buy and process your bison. Giving them some free advertising can only help you guys get higher prices. The people who do the processing all have to be small local operations because you cannot ship Bison like cattle. That grass fed free range stuff is the best. I’m tempted to come out for a visit just so I can get some of those steaks and ribs again.

            James

  6. Pingback: Best of Prairie Ecologist Photos – 2012 | The Prairie Ecologist

  7. Pingback: Watching the Sandhills Bounce Back at the Niobrara Valley Preserve | The Prairie Ecologist

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