Harvey Payne recalls the night before the first herd of 300 bison was due to be released on the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve just north of Pawhuska in November 1993. It was a night of anticipation, with the animals that once all but defined the prairie due to be reintroduced to a relatively small patch of it just a few hours later.
"They were being held in a 40-acre corral next to the preserve headquarters," Payne said. "Several of us were sitting in the back of a pickup, just surrounded by bison. To see what was getting ready to happen after the bison were absent from this landscape for 150 years ... my gosh, it was hard to believe it was going to happen the next morning. It was mind boggling."
Since then, of course, bison have become commonplace at the preserve. That once-fledgling herd has swelled to 2,700 animals, and preserve officials spent several days last week bringing them all together for their annual bison roundup.
It's a special time of year on the preserve, which was founded by the Nature Conservancy in November 1989 and now totals 39,000 acres--the largest remaining patch of tallgrass prairie on the planet.
"Bison are such captivating and enjoyable animals," said Payne, the preserve's longtime director who now serves as its community relations director. On Nov. 5, he spent the morning shepherding a group of reporters and photographers around the preserve's corrals as the second day of the roundup got underway. "The more you are around them, the more captivated you are by them."
The annual roundup has become a rite of fall at the preserve, with invited guests flocking there to catch a glimpse of a bison herd thundering across the prairie toward an enclosed pasture, where the animals are held until their time comes in the corral. It is there that the bison are run through a chute, where each one is weighed and inoculated, and its personal history is updated.
It is also at that point that some members of the herd are separated. The cows, who dominate the herd, are taken and sold to meat processors at the age of 10, while the bulls are sold at 6 and a half years, Payne said.
But convincing a traditionally free-roaming animal that can weigh more than a ton to enter a confined space is easier said than done. The dawn roundup that media members witnessed last week was a testament to how well the preserve staff does its job.
A task that used to be performed on horseback is now done from behind the wheel of a flatbed truck. Romanticists may decry that development, but there is no question the modern approach works much better.
Staff members--they're still called cowboys, by the way--culled a group of approximately 100 bison from the larger herd mingling in a 1,500-acre pasture and drove them toward a fence leading to the smaller pasture outside the corrals. Four trucks then got behind the herd, while the fifth was flanked on the open side of the bison, keeping them gathered in one spot just as the sun peeked over the horizon.
From about three-quarters of a mile away, media members watched as the trucks lined up, their engines idling and the drama building as a nearly full moon hovered in the western sky behind them. The prairie grew quiet once again before a radio signal ignited a flurry of action, the trucks roaring and lurching forward, spurring the herd into a headlong rush.
Tucked safely behind the metal fence just outside the corrals, reporters watched as the herd approached the smaller pasture just a few yards away.
Hemmed in on three sides by the fence and the five trucks, the bison galloped toward the enclosure in front of them. In what seemed like only a few minutes, the process was completed, with each of the animals safely corralled as a cowboy swung a gate shut behind them.
It was so smooth and precise, it was almost anti-climactic.
"That is a lot less stressful than the way we used to it, with four-wheelers," Payne said. He described that strategy as "the Chinese Army approach," in which dozens of cowboys, some of them borrowed from surrounding ranches, would simply surround as many bison as they could and drive them forward.
It was exciting, he said, but it wasn't exactly efficient.
"That became too much of a Wild West show. There are too many hidden hazards on the prairie," he said, too many cowboys lost control of their vehicles. "We've probably been doing this with trucks for six or seven years."
Payne said he doubts there are too many more refinements to make to the process.
"I think we've pretty well got it figured out," he said. "We make minor changes to the corral every year, so there are things we continue to address. But, really, our guys have been pretty ingenious in what they've done."
Outsmarting hoved critters has always been a cowboy's job.
Once the animals were confined to the smaller pasture, the real work began. Even smaller groups of bison--perhaps a dozen at a time--were herded through the corrals to holding pens. Eventually, each would be run through a chute as part of an assembly-line procedure, where it would be held while it was processed. It was a task that took only a few minutes under routine circumstances, with a crew of about a dozen cowboys lining the chutes and pens, prodding the animals forward.
The roundup serves a valuable function, aside from its dramatic value. Each bison has a transponder attached to it soon after it is born, a piece of technology that preserve officials use to keep track of the animals.
"We've had it just about from the start," Payne said, though he noted that the transponder used to come encased in a glass capsule, which didn't prove very durable. And because the capsule was embedded in the animal, it was not recoverable when the bison was sold.
Now, he said, the transponders are encased in plastic and attached to the bison's ear. A scanner reads the transponder and pulls up an animal's entire history on a computer, providing detailed records of its weight and health history.
Payne said the transponders are a pretty rugged piece of technology.
"They have to be," he said. "But they work pretty well."
Each bison also has a metal tag attached to its other ear that features a serial number, another way of identifying each animal and keeping track of its history. If both the transponder and the metal tag are lost, preserve officials have a third way of keeping up with an animal. Each calf is branded with its birth year at its first roundup, so officials know its age, even if all other information is lost.
The processing proceeded smoothly for the first part, though many of the animals expressed their dissatisfaction at being cooped up by kicking or butting their horns against the fence. The five- or six-day roundup is the only time all year the bison are confined, Payne said, meaning that for about 360 days a year, the animals roam the grounds of the preserve's 23,000-acre bison unit without any interference.
One bull seemed particularly displeased, kicking the fence so hard it knocked a prod out of one cowboy's hand, earning him a good-natured admonition from one of his cohorts.
"Y'all got butterfingers today, doncha?" he said, grinning.
For the most part, the animals waited calmly, their near-constant snorting sounding for all the world like the belching of drunken frat boys in the aftermath of a semester-ending kegger.
The atmosphere was relaxed, but that didn't mean everyone took their job lightly. There is no such thing as a routine day at the roundup, Payne said.
"No, certainly not," he said. "With bison, it's different every time. It's a pretty hazardous endeavor for them. The staff has to be paying attention all the time."
As proof of his point, Payne noted a logjam in the chute, where one animal had gotten turned around and fallen, and found itself pinned under the fence. The entire process came to a halt until a gate on the side of the chute was opened, allowing a front-end loader to swoop in and right it.
"They got him out of there," Payne said. "He wasn't getting out on his own."
The confinement process is not merely unpleasant for the bison, it's a source of considerable anxiety, he said.
"As a species, they did not evolve going through a set of corrals," he said. "They do not like to be confined. I've seen them do some bizarre things. We do everything we can to ensure the safety of the bison and the staff. We do everything we can to reduce stress."
But even the best intentions can go awry, he acknowledged. Payne recalled once seeing a 3-year-old bull so upset by his captivity that, for no apparent reason, he took off running in the corral, crashing headfirst into a metal fence and knocking himself out. That bull survived that mishap, Payne said, but it was a good reminder of how dangerous the animals can be.
"They can break a leg with a kick or disembowel another animal with one swish of their horn," he said.
Payne has been involved with the preserve since its planning stages in August 1984. In many ways, it has become his life's work, despite the fact he continues to practice law in Pawhuska and is an accomplished photographer.
"It's starting to seem like it," he said. "It's a long time. You look at the totality of what goes on here, and you see so many things that restore your faith in human nature."
Much of that feeling, he said, comes from all those who contributed money and effort to make the preserve a reality, as well as the more than 100 volunteer docents who staff the gift shop and preserve headquarters today.
But the true payoff for Payne, an Osage County native, has been seeing the reintroduced bison thrive on the preserve, just as they did all over the prairie for ages before the coming of European settlers nearly eradicated them.
"I grew up on a ranch, and I was always finding bison skulls, buffalo wallows and prehistoric hunting artifacts," Payne said. "So you can't help but look at this country and sense the void. To see us recapture something we came so close to losing is my reward. It took an immense amount of effort from a lot of people to make this happen."
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