RAPID CITY, S.D. (AP) - Thundering hooves, whooping cowboys, flapping flags, cheering crowds …
Nope. There was none of that.
Sept. 29 at Badlands National Park south of Wall, the processing of 1,000 bison began with silence.
Block lettering painted on corrals sternly warned of a “Quiet Area.” Workers spoke in hushed voices. A small group of high school students from Kadoka was guided into a shed atop a catwalk so they could see, but not be seen or heard. Human movements were tightly controlled to avoid drawing the animals’ attention.
Meanwhile, the bison stood and munched on grass inside high-walled holding areas, calm as could be.
The work happening last week in the Badlands is South Dakota’s other big fall bison roundup, with an atmosphere more associated with a library than with the boisterous festival of Americana that is the Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup.
The Custer State Park event, held two weeks ago, drew an estimated 15,000 visitors and a stampede of revenue, both from visitors and the sale of culled bison. In the Badlands, the processing of bison was witnessed by only a few busloads of schoolchildren, and the culled animals were given away to Native American tribes.
Even the weather seemed to cooperate with the deliberately low-profile Monday, as thick fog veiled the work in further obscurity.
Brian Kenner, the man in charge of the Badlands roundup, likes it that way and does not want to trade places with his more publicized counterparts at Custer State Park, the Rapid City Journal (https://bit.ly/1Bz1am2 ) reported.
“I know they do a good job with it, and I know they’ve got it under control, and I know they carry it off really well,” said Kenner, chief of science and natural resources at the Badlands. “But it just looks like a lot of pressure on the guys responsible for it, so I’m very happy to let them do that.”
The two roundups are opposite in nearly every way imaginable.
At Custer State Park, the roundup is the star of a multi-day spectacle. Bison are run past spellbound crowds as cowboys and cowgirls on horseback give chase. An auction, arts festival and other events make for a full weekend.
In the Badlands, park employees quietly monitored the movement of the bison in recent weeks, knowing the animals follow annual patterns. When the bison got near the corrals on the west end of the park’s North Unit, park employees gently moved them into holding pastures.
Once the bison are contained, workers do everything they can to minimize stress on the animals. Following the livestock-handling teachings of renowned consultant Temple Grandin, park employees use a series of progressively smaller pens to push the bison toward a squeeze chute. Movements are slow, and the bison stand calmly at each step in the process. In the squeeze chute, individual bison are measured for their height and weight, vaccinated, and poked with a needle that draws blood to test for diseases and genetics.
It wasn’t always that way. Years ago, before the gentler handling methods were adopted, it was common for four or five bison to die in a frenzied pileup of stress-induced commotion.
These days, fatalities are fewer and farther between. Four years ago, park employees processed 776 bison and made it to the 774th animal before that one, an older cow, fought in the chute and fell after she was released.
“She never got up, and we had to put her down,” Kenner said. “We were all upset because we were two away, and that’s our goal is to have a perfect roundup.”
By midmorning on Sept. 29, workers already had processed about 50 bison. It’s expected to take all week to process the rest.
The estimated 1,000 bison in the holding pastures are not the park’s entire herd. They’re just the ones that could be easily caught. Another 400 or so are still roaming in the park’s 64,000-acre wilderness area.
Last week’s roundup is thought to be the Badlands’ biggest ever. Last year’s October blizzard and lingering wet conditions made a 2013 roundup impossible. The herd has grown to around 1,400, far above the desired 700 to 800.
Culling is carried out as the bison are processed. Inside a shed near the squeeze chute, some workers watch through a large picture window. On a table near the window is a computer, some paperwork and test tubes filled with blood. At that table, Eddie Childers, a wildlife biologist in the park, monitors and updates a database.
All the bison that are processed get a microchip implanted behind their ears, and many have the microchip from past roundups. The microchips help Childers track the age and other characteristics of the bison, and he targets certain animals - mostly yearlings and 2-year-olds this year - to be peeled out of the herd.
Four hundred to 500 head will be culled this year, and after another crop of calves is born next spring and summer, another big round of culling will be necessary. The culled bison are given away to tribes through the Inter Tribal Buffalo Council, which acts as a clearinghouse for requests from individual tribes.
Some bison will go to South Dakota reservations such as Rosebud and Pine Ridge this year, but others will travel as far as Oklahoma, where Kenner said a tribe is establishing a new herd. Since the Badlands herd was established in 1963, the park has sent about 4,000 bison to recipients across the country.
The park’s careful handling of bison and the free distribution of culled bison to tribes is predicated on a view of the park’s bison as a wildlife resource, rather than a livestock commodity. That attitude was on full display Monday, Sept. 29 in the near-reverent way the handlers went about their business.
“The more you’re around these animals, the more you appreciate them, and the more interesting you find them,” Kenner said. “I hate handling them. I’d rather just watch them in the wild, but this is what we have to do.”
Information from: Rapid City Journal, https://www.rapidcityjournal.com
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