By, Colton Jones
In about a week we’ll start gathering the buffalo off their winter pasture on the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands and bring them back across the Cheyenne River to their summer pasture. It will also be the first time I’ll be among them since my accident.
Shortly before Valentine’s Day, I had an unfortunate encounter with one of our bison. Bison, as we know, are and always will be wild animals. I of all people should know this, but that didn’t stop me from vesting an unfortunate amount of faith into the animals I have become familiar with over the last 7 years. I want to share my experience in hopes to shed light on the authenticity of Wild Idea Buffalo Company's product, and also our herd management. After all, the idea is to keep the wild, wild.
As spring is now officially upon us, we have been preparing for the upcoming calving season over the last month or so. Our herd resides on some 20,000 acres throughout the fall and winter months prior to calving. If you’re thinking to yourself, “20,000 acres seems like a lot of land” you are right. Our fall and winter pasture is not only expansive, it is rough country with lots of draws, sloughs, wooded ravines and Badlands-type terrain. If a bison cow should have her calf prior to crossing the river onto spring and summer pastures, there is a good chance she will become reclusive within the landscape until her calf is mature enough to cross the river. This could potentially create a situation where bison are on two different sides of a fence, which of course is an unnatural setting for the bison and can cause stress to the herd. So, the goal is to keep the herd somewhat close to their spring and summer pasture in the last few remaining days leading up to calving season so that when the time comes, we can bring the whole herd in as one.
One type of management we use to encourage the animals to stay near is to occasionally feed a bale or two of grass hay to the herd when they are in sight. Over the years, Dan has delegated such responsibilities to me as he knows I've gained adequate knowledge on what to do and more importantly, what not to do. He would stress things like “Be sure everyone gets a bite,” that way the whole herd has had a positive interaction with me, the tractor, the area they are feeding in. He also said and still says “I don’t care how long you have been around them, don’t ever trust them. They are wild animals that have been shaped to live on this land over thousands of years of evolution." I know when Dan shares advice, especially in regard to bison, to not take any of it lightly. These words of wisdom were not absent the day of my accident, but I did give them a pass after some unexpected circumstances came about. This is where I screwed up.
I called Dan one frozen morning to see if he had caught sight of any bison near the river. He in fact had, which was the cue to fire up the tractor and grab some hay. I made my way down the trail from the hay yard to the river bottom, a bumpy 3-mile trek. The temperature was subzero and the snow had covered the ground for over a month filling in ravines and washouts so that the land looked like one smooth layer of powder.
Once on the river bottom, I maneuvered around familiar rough spots hidden under the snow. I made my way to the herd in a zig zag sort of way. They, on the other hand, took the crow’s route to me, crashing through snow drifts or sometimes jumping over them all together. I had cut the net wrap of the bale prior to entering the pasture that the bison were in so I wouldn't have to get out and do it while they were around. I began unrolling the bale with the tine on the front-end loader of the tractor. I got the 1,200-pound bale about halfway unrolled when I felt the tractor’s front wheels fall through the snow into a washout. The bale tine jabbed into the ground and broke. During this time, the bison had begun to line up along the hay I had rolled out. I slowly exited the tractor and picked up the broken tine in hope of repairing it later. Once I was back in the tractor, I tried different ways to get the bale unrolled without the tine. It wasn’t working. This is where I began to make bad decisions.
Instead of leaving the half bale and returning with the proper equipment to finish the job safely, I
decided to get out on foot and unroll it by hand. It
was something I had done before, but typically, with
much less hay left to roll out, and thus staying much
closer to the tractor.
I proceeded with caution, trying to keep an eye on
the herd and looking for signs of agitation among
the bison. Because so much of the bale remained, it was too heavy to maneuver and roll away from the herd, instead, it was rolling out parallel to them. I continued this process until I neared the end of the bale. It was at this moment, I noticed an 800-pound, 3-year-old heifer staring at me. She wasn’t showing any signs of aggression. Sometimes bison will raise their tails, make woofing noises, and paw the ground or even false charge when they feel threatened. She did none of that. But, there was something about the way she was looking at me. She made me feel as if I was an intruder, which I was of course, and that quite possibly she had never seen anything so foreign amongst her family members, or at least not for the last 5 months.
Within a couple of seconds, she started towards me. I looked for nearby safety and saw only the tractor which was at this point 50 or 60 yards away. I knew I didn’t stand a chance of beating her back to the tractor. I knew that if she wanted to protect her kin bad enough, she wasn’t going to let a two-legged upright-walking European get away unpunished to prevent future run-ins. I took off at a sprint toward the tractor anyway. Initially, she blew past as she came at me from the side, nearly hooking me in the hip. She disappeared out of sight behind me for a moment as she made an arch so that we were traveling in single file together. She closed on me fast this way and delivered a glancing blow to the back of my knee. I kept my footing for a short while and reached my hand back to put on her head as if for some dumb reason I was going to stiff arm my way back to the tractor. I felt her horns and then her wooly head with my hand. She must have felt my touch because she shook it off and went in for the final lesson, which was a right horn placed on the inside of my left thigh. As she finished her hook she hoisted all 220 pounds of me up into the air. I came back down on top of her head and somehow happened to slide off her and land on my feet. I kept running, except now she was done. She had carried on with her line right past me until she was halfway between the tractor and me. She stopped for a moment and looked at me. I still needed to get to the tractor and she was in the path. I raised my hands and hollered at her. She snorted and took a couple of defiant bounds back into the rest of herd that was busy snacking.
I crawled into the tractor and began to examine myself. It looked as if she had only ripped my pants. It wasn’t until I began driving that I felt the warm wet feeling pooling up in my jeans. At this point, I just figured I pissed myself, but after further examination, I noticed a puncture wound on the inside of my thigh. Knowing the femoral artery was in the neighborhood, I applied as much pressure as I could while I called Dan to let him know we were going to be taking a trip to the hospital. I still had a lot of pasture to cover before I got to Dan and Jill’s. Then, I saw Dan closing the gap. He was covering ground relatively fast in his Four Runner. He loaded me into the car and we made our way out of the pasture, leaving the tractor behind. We stopped at Dan and Jill’s to let Jill know what was going on. She looks very worried, but remained steady as she was watching my son, Lincoln. She gave me a “go get fixed quickly, I’ll take care of Lincoln” kind of look.
We covered the 45 miles to the hospital in record time while passing a couple state troopers. The ER doctor noted that the puncture was indeed near the femoral artery but luckily had missed it.
It wasn’t until my wife, Jilian came into the ER room, that I quickly realized how careless I had been. Her tears reminded me that I wasn’t just lucky to come out of the situation with 35 stitches and a bottle of painkillers, I was lucky that I didn’t shatter the one thing I go to work for every day, which is her and my son of course. It was at this moment that I came to the reckoning that over the years I had been slowly losing my fear of bison, and that fear may be a necessity no matter how long you have been around them. Nothing like this had ever occurred on the ranch before, and I will do everything in my power to make sure it doesn’t again.
I want to make it very clear that none of this was in any way the bison’s fault. Looking back at it, there were a number of factors that played a role, my negligence being the lead. Our bison had not seen a human in 5 months. I (being a human) impinged upon their safety zone. Bison’s eyes are on the side of their head and have evolved to graze in massive mobs, thus having eyes all around their surroundings. Standing in a straight line side by side hinders the herd’s ability to see all of their surroundings. I have no doubt that encroaching on the heifer’s area in a way that didn’t allow her to see me until I was too close, triggered her instinct to protect. For this, among other things, I am at fault.
This story is a reminder that as we do our best to let bison be bison, as long as WE are involved, there’s a chance for error. The only way to avoid error is to fully RESPECT all things WILD.