Photos of the Week – October 30, 2021

I helped out with a roundup of the west herd at our Niobrara Valley Preserve this week. This year’s roundup took longer than usual because we missed last year’s scheduled roundup because a washed-out bridge cut off truck access to the corrals. The bridge was finally rebuilt late this summer, but missing a year meant we had a much larger herd to work through than we normally do. (The biggest reason we hold annual roundups is to manage the size of the herd.)

Bison roundups are much quieter than similar events with cattle. Part of that is because the bison, themselves, are quiet. Their soft grunts are much different than the loud bawls of cattle that dominate the atmosphere when they’re being worked. The other reason bison roundups are quiet, though, is that we take extra measures to avoid stressing the animals. There’s very little shouting, banging, or other noises, making the event almost eerily hushed. We work the bison as quickly as possible, trying to minimize the time they spend in the corrals.

A yearling bull, still wet from a light rain, waits for its turn to pass through the corral alleys. Nikon 18-300mm lens @300mm. ISO 640, f/6.3, 1/1000 sec.
Evan Suhr, Preserve Manager, directs operations – using a radio to avoid shouting. Nikon 18-300mm lens @300mm. ISO 640, f/6.3, 1/1000 sec.

I’ve been helping with these roundups for almost 25 years now. Over that time, I’ve really grown to appreciate and admire the coordination and communication it takes to make the entire process run smoothly. There are always hitches, of course, because we’re dealing with animals that can be unpredictable and don’t always go the direction we’d like them to. For the most part, however, it’s a really clean and efficient operation.

The Niobrara River during a brief moment of light, just before sunset. (Everything on the right side of the river is part of the Niobrara Valley Preserve.) DJI Mavic Zoom drone.
A bison cow makes her way through the alley. Nikon 10.5mm fisheye lens. ISO 640, f/6.3, 1/500 sec.
A bison bull, just before it was quickly released. Nikon 10.5mm fisheye lens. ISO 640, f/6.3, 1/320 sec.
Pens of sorted bison created steam with their breath on a crisp autumn morning. Nikon 18-300mm lens. ISO 640, f/13, 1/400 sec.
Yearling bulls at sunrise. Nikon 18-300mm lens. ISO 640, f/13, 1/640 sec
Bison in the trap pasture surrounding the corral, shortly after being released from the corral. They’ll soon be turned back out into their 10,000 acre plus regular pasture.

I don’t claim to know the mind of a bison, but they certainly seem to settle quickly back into prairie life once the roundup is completed. I took the above video with a drone, keeping enough distance to avoid drawing attention from the animals. Given their slow ambling and grazing behavior, you’d never know they were packed together in a corral just a few hours prior. Soon, they’ll be released from the trap pasture that surrounds the corral and will spend the winter and all of next growing season in the hills of their regular pasture (about 16 square miles in size). They’ll have very little human contact before we get to see them up close and personal again next fall.

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.

11 thoughts on “Photos of the Week – October 30, 2021

  1. Hi Chris,

    I’m a relatively new subscriber (and yes, completed the survey, 😀). I really enjoy your thoughtful essays and love the photos. A quick question about the bison video. In the video, up on the hillsides and hilltops are several dead trees. Were they intentionally killed/girdled to open up the prairie or was there a natural event that killed them? Thanks, have a wonderful fall and winter, and stay well.

    Regards,

    Jim

    Jim Shurts 2822 Chamberlain Avenue Madison, WI 53705-3608 608-345-7848 jfshurts@gmail.com

    • Hi Peggy,

      I’m not the brains of the operation, so don’t know all the details. I do know we take bids for the animals we sell (mostly calves and yearlings, but also some older animals). In the past, some have gone to help build other herds and some have gone more directly into the food system.

  2. Hi Chris,

    Please know that I really enjoy your posts – I live in the East US and prairies are a habitat about which I know little and have spent no adult time in exploring. Thanks so much for your posts!

    What do you guys do to the bison on the annual round up?

    Thanks for answering, stay safe and take care, Deborah Hanley

    > >

    • Thanks Deborah, I’m really glad you’re enjoying the blog. The biggest reason for the roundup is to sort off animals to sell and manage the size of the herd. We also put ID tags in the animals, treat any medical issues we see (e.g., pink eye), and vaccinate animals that will be sold across state lines.

  3. I so enjoyed. Do they ever need non trained volunteers for any part of that? I’m serious. I will do what it takes next fall.
    We have 2 Centet bison, I relate to them all the time. But they aren’t free☹️

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