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June 06, 2013


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The Displaced Bison

Last winter, I wrote a monthly musing that talked about a group of buffalo that had recently been gathered on a cattle ranch in south Florida. A buffalo producer that we work with here in South Dakota had sold some buffalo to that ranch, and since I had driven around those buffalo as they happily grazed on big pastures of native grass in northwestern South Dakota, I wondered where they ended up and how they were doing. My brother and his wife have a retirement condominium in Fort Myers and during a visit, when I got bored with all that humid sunshine and sea food, I set out to try to find that lost tribe of South Dakota buffalo.

There isn’t much farmland in the immediate vicinity of Fort Myers but I knew there were fruit orchards and some cattle farms north and a little inland. I set out in that direction and by asking gas station cashiers and guys with cowboy hats, I finally found myself out of the urban clutter and into an odd, savannah-like country, surrounded by citrus trees and dotted with short haired, long-eared cattle that looked as if they had come from Africa or India. I wandered around hard surfaced country roads, searching the horizon for buffalo as I would do on the Great Plains. But the earth down there had none of the gentle curvature or grand vistas that buffalo have thrived on for tens of thousands of years. It’s difficult to see at the scale I’m used to, so for a couple hours all I saw were those floppy eared cattle and the strange palm trees that rim the pastures.

I had nearly given up when a familiar dark line of animals appeared a mile ahead and another mile off the road to my right. I was pretty sure they were buffalo even before the rusty cattle fence along the road turned to new, taller, buffalo fence. I pulled into a set of buildings and right into the noontime break of a group of Florida cowboys that were the most familiar thing I’d seen all morning. They were a fencing crew and they told me that they had been building buffalo fence for months and had miles more fence to go. I asked questions about what they thought of the idea of bringing buffalo into that country and I got the universal cowboy shrug and non-committal comments. They weren’t too sure about the whole idea. They didn’t see what was wrong with the cattle that were being moved off to make room for the buffalo. “Them old brahma crosses are kinda bred to stand the heat,” an older man said.

“Bugs too,” an Hispanic looking guy added. “There’s some nasty bugs around here.” He shook his shoulders like a spider might be crawling up his back and they all laughed.

When I asked about the plans for the ranch they shrugged in unison. “Boss is over in that building. We’re just workers.”

The boss was a pleasant young man who was happy to show me around. He had no previous experience with buffalo or ranching, but was building a big ranch with grand plans to market grass-fed buffalo to the population centers in south Florida. I wasn’t sure how well buffalo would do on the semi-tropical Florida grasses after evolving to eat only the grasses of the temperate Great Plains. I figured he was in for some tough lessons but I had to admire his positive attitude and entrepreneurial spirit. He was rightfully proud of his ranch and proud of the changes he was making. He showed me the map of the ranch; where all the water was, what was fenced for buffalo and what was yet to be fenced. We drove out to see the loading chutes where buffalo were being unloaded from all over the west. I explained that I was anxious to see the South Dakota buffalo. I wanted to be able to tell the folks back home that I had seen their buffalo and I was curious to see how they were doing. I planned to tell jokes about how I’d seen their buffalo when I was on vacation in Florida - I’d say that they were all wearing sunglasses and Bermuda shorts.

And when I did see them, they looked pretty good. They had only been off the trucks for a week or two - just a couple weeks since they’d been standing in the freezing winds of the Great Plains - but they looked better than some of the other buffalo who had come from all over the country and had had more time to rest.

I thought about those displaced buffalo on and off for the last six months but hadn’t heard how they were doing until a friend emailed a web link to an article about them.  The article said that the buffalo of south Florida were lethargic and a vet had been consulted. The vet recommended that they feed them some oranges. No lie - he said they needed orange pulp. I am amazed that there is a vet in south Florida who knows anything about buffalo. South Dakota has more buffalo than any other state and even out here it’s hard to find a vet that knows much about them. I guess that is because our buffalo never get lethargic enough to need a vet. Heck, I didn’t even know oranges were a good substitute for wheatgrass, grama grass, and blue stem. I had no idea that citrus could take the place of a stiff, cold wind or that orange pulp can cure homesickness.

Check out the article here.

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