In The News

Buffalo Caregivers — Guest Post by “Doc” Don Woerner, DVM

Buffalo Caregivers — Guest Post by “Doc” Don Woerner, DVM

Buffalo Caregivers

Returning an Icon and Healing a Landscape While Avoiding Manipulation and Exploitation of our North American National Mammal, the Buffalo.

“How could we live in the old way when everything was gone?…  My heart fell down when I began to see dead buffalo scattered all over our beautiful country, killed and skinned and left to rot by white men…   many, many hundreds of buffalo. The whole country smelled of rotting meat. Even the flowers could not put down the bad smell. Our hearts were like stones…  We believed for a long time that the buffalo would come again to us; but they did not. We grew hungry and sick and afraid, all in one. Not believing their own eyes our hunters rode very far looking for buffalo… ‘Nothing; we found nothing,’ they told us; and then, hungry, they stared at the empty plains, as though dreaming.”——The Crow woman, Pretty Shield (Linderman, 1932)

The sadness and tragedy related in this story is almost overwhelming. Decimation of these magnificent animals has to be one of the darkest episodes of our shared American history. The absence of this species sent shockwaves through our entire prairie ecosystem. Shockwaves that are still apparent today.

The near loss of the buffalo combined with relocation on reservations and forced dependency was a cultural and spiritual tragedy for our indigenous people. But the buffalo survived.  So did the people. Both are very resilient, and both are making a strong comeback. The buffalo and their indigenous caregivers are returning to this land as a team and the land shows promise to heal.

With the exceptions of less than two dozen animals deep in Yellowstone National Park and also, the bison calves brought back from east of the Rocky Mountain Front to the Mission Valley by Samuel Walking Coyote, our buffalo were saved from extinction by people in the business of raising domestic cattle. Buffalo are not domestic cattle. To be treated as such is perhaps the greatest insult in the long history of abuse bison have suffered at the hands of modern man.

In 1876, a man named L. A. Huffman came to Ft Keogh (later called Miles City). Huffman was a photographer and documented the last days of wild buffalo on the Northern Plains. Granville Stewart was an early-day cattleman from the Deer Lodge Valley. The two men became acquainted. They travelled together north of Ft Keogh looking for a future cattle range. They traversed a large expanse of Eastern Montana wild buffalo pasture, then referred to as either the “Big Open” or the “Flat Iron.”

Granville Stewart later writes about that experience…   “From Porcupine Creek clear to Miles City the bottoms are liberally sprinkled with the carcasses of dead buffalo. In many places they lie thick on the ground, fat and the meat not yet spoiled, all murdered for their hides which are piled like cord wood all along the way. ‘Tis an awful sight.  Such a waste of the finest meat in the world!”…  Note: These words describing buffalo as having the “finest meat in the world”…  were made by a cattleman!

Both men were appalled at what they saw. Huffman later vowed to let others know of this for the rest of his life through photographs and the written word. He became a “Big Open” advocate for creating and preserving a very large pasture on the “Flat Iron” just for wild buffalo.

Photo of bison and calves standing in grass under a blue sky.

Today, Native buffalo caretakers along with Native organizations like the Tanka Fund and the InterTribal Buffalo Council have taken on the challenge of bringing back this magnificent United States National Mammal. In addition to restoring this animal, they are enhancing improvements creating a more a more healthy and vibrant natural prairie ecosystem.

Recently, conservation thought has shifted toward a more complete or holistic view of wild animals in natural settings. The North American buffalo must be considered a wild animal, not a domestic bovid. We need to concentrate on restoring the various roles and relationships with wildlife, thus creating functional, more complete ecosystems. We must restore the balanced functional relationships between animals, plants, and man.

To paraphrase the buffalo rancher and author, Dan O’Brien…  “we must provide an honorable model for our ongoing relationship with the buffalo and with the landscape that gives us all life.”

In our interactions with bison, the animal must be honored and respected as an individual and as a spiritual part of Native American culture. There’s not much you can “make” a buffalo do. Generally, you will get along further with less mutual stress if the buffalo “wants to do it.” Observations such as this is why we call it “caregiving” and not “management.”

Buffalo caregiving is a learning process that requires ongoing creative innovation. We don’t know it all. We are still learning. We must do this in stages. We have to be willing to learn, change, and adapt. I struggle with how to accomplish this process and am convinced the tribes and individual Indian buffalo ranchers and employees are in the best position to provide the leadership needed.

I would like to suggest six principles of buffalo caregiving and I plan to expand on each subject in subsequent blogs:

  1. Promote wild natural characteristics.
  2. Preserve genetic integrity and diversity.
  3. Support landscape biodiversity and proper ecosystem functioning.
  4. Promote animal health and herd biosecurity.
  5. Maintain and increase economic viability.
  6. Learn, improve, and adapt.

I see two broad trends for “respectful buffalo caretaking”:

  1. Allow bison to exist in conditions that are as natural as possible with few selective and manipulative ranching inputs, then harvest them for meat and other products.
  2. Allow them to live on a large landscape with as little human intervention as possible and to adapt to natural environmental conditions and pressures. This second trend is the “conservation” or “Big Open’ model, and it would be as close to wild bison as our modern world could reasonably accept. It would also serve as a potential reservoir of animals with non-human-manipulated genes for other more manipulated buffalo herds.

Borders for both of these models must be in place. No “free-roaming” bison. The better term is “wide-ranging.” We must always respect our neighbor’s property along with the integrity of nearby communities.

With cooperation, working together for the good of our National Mammal, we may someday realize pioneer Miles City photographer L. A. Huffman’s dream…  “to make a great pasture of the ‘Flat Iron’…   to banish forever the skin hunters…  how splendid ‘twould be when the yellow-green carpet of spring had come, to see it all teeming with life”.

Don Woerner, DVM

“Doc” Don Woerner, DVM

For almost 60 years Doc and his family have lived, created a business, and raised a family in a semi-rural setting of the Yellowstone River valley of central Montana. His career has included private veterinary practice at the family business entitled Laurel East Animal Center. The Center still provides many services for livestock, companion animals and wildlife. Doc’s favorite wild animal is the North American buffalo or bison, our proud United States National Mammal.

Doc Woerner earned a BS degree in Biological Sciences and a DVM degree (Doctor of Veterinary Medicine) from Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado. Doc and his wife Bobbie met while at the university. Bobbie was raised on a cattle ranch in northwestern Wyoming.

Doc is enthusiastically working on a post-retirement career with a new enterprise called the American Bison Resource and Education Center. This new endeavor is located west of Billings near ZooMontana. Associated with the Center is a “museum on wheels” called the Field Museum of the American Buffalo. Doc also assists with the Yellowstone National Park bison Quarantine, Conservation and Transfer Program which identifies and finds new prairie homes for surplus healthy brucellosis certified free, wild bison on native tribal lands.