Bison Round-up in Rush Valley, Utah
“It’s easy to get a buffalo to do what a buffalo wants to do,” said a man in cowboy hat as he watched the start of a bison round-up at the Onaqui Ranch in the melting-snow-covered Rush Valley, an hour west of Salt Lake. The ranch is basically a game park for bison. For about $3500, hunters can come with guns, or bow and arrows to shoot a bison for meat.
In the distance, we watched a posse of all terrain vehicles blasting over treeless pasture, herding about 30 buffalo in to a plywood lined holding pen. One mama with a calf in tow was chased relentlessly back and forth for miles. The pair deftly eluded the quads slipping through tiny gaps, bolting faster than a thousand pound hunk of bone and flesh should be able to. The calf’s mouth was open, tongue hanging out, panting in exhaustion. I wondered if it might collapse or have a heart attack. Eventually a jeep, a truck and a few humans running with arms comically flailing, were dispatched to help wangle the stragglers.
Once the animals were contained in a holding pen, they were herded in groups of two or three through a labyrinth-like chute made of wood and sections of metal gates, fastened together, hopefully very securely. Volunteers, many with no bovine experience, took up positions along on the outside walls of the chute and prodded the bison, poking them with PVC rods and shouting to urge them onwards. In an apparent design flaw, the chute was broad enough for even the heftiest bull to turn around, so a lot of time was spent coaxing nervous giants to change direction, which they did not want to do. At one point two men climbed to the top of the structure and hanging from the overhead bars used their legs and feet in a gesture that can only be called “kicking.” It was hard not to imagine them losing their grips, giving the buffalo and opportunity to respond.
In the moments when yelling stopped the air was filled the baritone breaths of the hyperventilating bison. Looking through the slats in the chute I saw wild, desperate eyes embedded in a masses of trembling iron wool.
The buffalo were weighed, then pushed into an iron-maiden like device, minus the spikes. Two curved doors clamped down on their necks, holding them in place, inspiring thunderous clangs, kicking and jolting. A hatch opened to expose their fuzzy shoulders, and a volunteer doused them with a surpy blue deworming agent that looked dangerous to handle without protective gear. The rancher reached through the hatch to administer vaccinations. I could see his hand shaking, perhaps in fear, if not respect for the feral power of 2000 trapped pounds.
Chet Vernon, a volunteer from Salt Lake, in skinny jeans and a check black and red flannel, was in charge of covering the bison’s massive head with a modified dish towel. The striped towel had two holes ripped out of the corners, meant to hang from the horns covering the eyes acting as a calming blinder. Chet spoke sweetly to the raging animals. “It’s ok, It’s ok” he repeated in a high pitched voice, which reminded me of how I talk to my dog when he’s freaking out about fireworks - to the same nonexistent effect. The apoplectic behemoths whipped their heads back and forth like a sack of bowling balls to toss the towel off. Chet bravely, gently tried to put it back on, whispering to one bull, “please don’t gore me.”
After half a dozen or so buffalo completed this process, the dish towel was splattered in blood. Many of the animals ripped their flesh open railing against the constraints of the cage. In wonder I wondered “How are they letting me shoot this?” Reassuringly, their website states:
We do not condone nor will we permit these animals to suffer needlessly due to a customer's poor marksmanship. We reserve the right to terminate the hunt and dispatch the animal ourselves depending upon the situation.
The friendly rancher’s wife came over to say hello and kindly offered me doughnuts and chocolate milk. As we were chatting a bull catapulted five or six feet in to the air ripping a chunk of wood out of a fence, she marveled, “It just amazes me how high those beasts can jump, that what I call them, beasts.” I did my best Margaret Mead impersonation, thanked her and the rancher sincerely for the generous access. Once again, I am grateful for the front row seat to life my job affords me. More than ever, I will continue to be mindful about eating meat.