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Posts Tagged ‘bison’

black angus

The snow swirls wildly.  Whiteout conditions then subsume the land. But just as soon as the snow squalls came, the sun blinks and out, and the snow clouds dissipate. The dusting left on the dormant grass melts away. It is the sallow grass of winter.

But soon it will be greening, for we have entered into that oddball month that runs from late March to late April, when the days switch from balmy sweetness of coming spring to the driving chills of winter. The two forces will war against each other over the next month.

Spoiler alert: the warm and balmy beats the dagger cold in the end.

This is the time of the great calving. Not of glaciers or of wild beasts but of the beef cattle that move their way through the green pastures, munching away at their forage, getting fat as they fart and belch and chew cud in the sunshine.

The agrarian life is in a moribund state here in North-Central West Virginia. The old ways of farmers turning out a few beef cows with calves and keeping a few head of sheep are slowly but surely in decline. Georgia and Tennessee are better lands for beef, and the price of wool is but a pittance.  Big agribusiness works the more fertile lands of the Midwest, Great Plains, and California, and the mixed operation little hill farmer of the Alleghenies is left way behind.

Only a few souls cling to the business of cattle. Virtually none do it full-time. My own grandfather on my mother’s side was one of these part-time cattlemen. He was a school bus-driver. He “drove bus” is the way his occupation was described.  But his heart was in raising beef cattle. He was not a man of great education, but he was every bit as into improving his strains as Robert Bakewell or Thomas Coke. He was always looking for a fine bull to put to his cows, and he never kept any scrub cattle.

But now the old farmers have gone. Their children have gone off to make their fortunes elsewhere, and by now, several generations have been removed from that lifestyle.  Children’s hands, which once milked dairy cattle, now caress smart phones and video game controls. To most of us, this world as a foreign as Outer Mongolia.

But I often drive this stretch of rural road, though, where the farmer still turn out their cattle into roadside pastures. And in between the March snow squalls, I slip along this road.

The cattlemen along this road keep only “black Angus” or the crossbred form known as a black baldy. These Scottish cattle grow thick coats during the winter chill, and although they are hornless, they sort of make me think of bison when I see them. Their shaggy hides just have that sort of primeval look to them.

And March is the time when the calves drop. They fall black and wet onto the yellow grass, and their mothers stand over them, licking them with the deep cleaning, stimulating strokes of their muscular tongues.

And then they rise from the grass and drink the colostrum, while the snow flies all around them.

The cattlemen breed the cows to give birth in March, so the calves can grow and mature on the green grass of spring. That way, they can get top dollar at the autumn livestock markets.

There is a toughness in these cattle, though they are so carefully bred for their fine marbled beef, that they drop their young into this time in which the winter chills square off against the coming spring warmth.

This scene feels ancient, but in long history of the Alleghenies, it is but a brief footnote. Mammoths and mastodons once dropped the calves here, as did the ancient North American bison.  And when the Europeans came, the forests were full of elk and modern-day bison, and they too had their young in the spring sunshine on these glady hills.

And 50 years ago, the Angus weren’t grazing the hillsides. The very stately English Herefords were the beef breed of choice, and a hundred years ago, the most farmers kept shorthorns, which are always called “Durhams” in West Virginia. Cross them with Jersey or Holstein, and you’ve got a nice little dairy cow.  The rest can be killed for beef or sold to market.

As I drive down the road, I come to pasture that is enclosed by an 8-foot fence of woven wire. When I first saw this fence, I thought it odd. Most cattlemen just put in four strands of barbed wire, and if that doesn’t hold the cows back, a solar paneled electric fence certainly will.

But here, the fence is so elaborate, and I never could figure out why it was so.

And then one day, I saw a them standing along the fence nearest the road. They were a herd of about a dozen bison.

They looked out of place behind the woven wire.  In my mind, a bison is a wild animal, one that our greed largely killed off in the past two hundred years.

But on this farm, they have returned, but their reintroduction is ersatz. Two hundred years ago, the bison roamed up from the Ohio River Valley during the early spring to eat the rich mountain grasses, and every winter, they would wander out of the snowfields of the higher mountain into the mild river bottoms.

These bison, though, are confined. Sooner or later, they would go to slaughter. Their wildness has been bottled up, but I can’t help but wonder if they would enjoy running loose as their wild ancestors once did.

I think of these bison and of these cattle, and I think about the question of permanence. In a thousand years, will this bison or the Angus still be grazing these pastures? Will the pastures even exist, or will the temperate forest absorb the grasslands as they have done with all the old hill farms that have been abandoned to nature? Will the snows of March still come flying in that great whirlwind battle between warmth and freezing chill? Or will the warming climate declare final victory over the March snow?

Permanence is illusory.  To adhere to that illusion is to become subject to a delusion.  Sooner or later, the fracking trucks will come, and if the groundwater gets ruined, these little farms will be gone.

Economics and ecology will simply clear it all off, just as these forest bison were cleared off nearly two hundred years ago.

So now behold this land of the black buffalo, but don’t blink.  It might not be around too much longer.

 

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bison and calf

The name of the killer has been lost to the annals of history.  All we know is that he killed, and then there were none.

The whole story has been nothing more than a footnote in one forgotten chapter of wildlife in America. What follows is my conjecture about what happened:

The year was 1825. The bison cow and calf wandered down along wide valley.  They were wary beasts, for their kind had been slaughtered relentlessly in these mountains for 50 years.  For the past two decades, the only ones that remained were those that lived in these high mountains and knew how to hide their massive forms in steep hollows when the scent of man crossed their noses.

The pair had been the last survivors of herd that was massacred two weeks before. Buffle hides were demand, and there were mountain men who would oblige the market.

It is easy to blame the hunters for their rapacity, but the resource seemed inexhaustible. In the early days, every one that was shot was soon replaced by another three that came filtering in from west.

And it was that way until these early decades of the republic, when all that remained were these cagey mountain bison that watched every step they took and hid themselves in the deepest redoubts of the Alleghenies.

Two weeks before, a trio of hide hunters stumbled onto the herd in the deep mountains south of where Elkins, West Virginia, now stands.

They wandered the rugged valley that is carved by the Tygart Valley River during the gentle months of spring, when the green grass grew beautiful and sweet.

But that day, the hide hunters came up from the Shenandoah Valley. The older two had trapped beaver the great land of Kentucky before running back to the settled country in the east. They traded in fur and hides, but upon hearing rumors of the last herds of bison in these mountains, they packed up and headed into the Alleghenies, bringing along one of their sons who had been yearning for a bit of adventure.

The hunters spent ten days tracking the herd, and one morning, the son just happened to bump a bull and two cows off a mineral lick. The bison ran deep into a mountain hollow, and when the son tried followed them, he could hear the hoofbeats of many bison deep down in the hollow.

He raced back to tell his father and his father’s partner about the find, and the men loaded up with balls and gun powder and began their approach into the back side of the hollow, where the hillside was steep and the bison would be helpless down below.

There were seven bison down in the hollow. Three cows, two young calves, a subadult bull, and mature bull were nibbling on some forest browse.

The partner was a better shot than the others, so he positioned himself where his shots would fire across the mouth of the hollow. That way, he could shoot sling lead at any bison that tried to leave. The father and son positioned themselves where they could open fire on the whole herd below.

The balls sailed through the air, and in those days before breech-loading rifles, it took many shots to drop five bison.

They fell bloody and dead. The men set to work cutting the hides and then loading their mules for the long trudge back to Staunton and the Great Valley.

A cow and calf ran long out of the hollow and ran and ran until they could no longer hear the gun shots and shouts of men.

For two weeks they roamed is renegades in the mountains, but hunger and the sweet scent of spring grass brought the pair down into the little head of the Tygart’s Valley.

And it was there that an unnamed hunter, perhaps in need of a little meat or yearning for a bit of brass from the buffle hide, slipped down along the laurel that grew thick along the headwaters.  It took six shots to drop the cow, and the cow was down in two.

This hunter had no idea what he had just done. He’d killed a bison or two before in his life, and he knew their numbers were getting scarcer and scarcer in the mountains. But he knew if he waited a few years, another herd or two would mosey back in, and the hide hunting could continue.

But he was wrong.

What no one knew at the time was that this hunter had killed the last two bison in the Original 13 Colonies. And when those two fell, no more herds filtered in from the west. No more hidden bison herds were revealed in some remote hollow or valley.

This animal had carved much of the early infrastructure of what became West Virginia. The bison originally grazed the High Alleghenies in summer then marched west out of the high country when the snows came.  They would travel so far west as to hit the Ohio River, where the winters were milder. They would mosey east every spring to eat the good mountain grasses, and over the years, bovine inertia would carve vast trails coming out of the mountains towards the Ohio.

The indigenous people of these mountains would use these trails as their roads, and European settlers used them too. They would later use big gangs of slaves to clear the trails and turn them into roads that could take a horse or oxcart, and thus, the land was opened for settlement.

Fur trappers took the bison hides and ate the meat.  The homesteaders shot them because they gored horses and torn down split-rail fences.

And soon the bison numbers began to dwindle.

It was the bison the licked the salt from licks in the Kanawha Valley. Hide and market hunters followed them to these big licks, and soon discovered massive deposits of brine. In the years before the Civil War, large numbers of slaves worked the salt works, and these salt works became the basis for the massive chemical industry.

Near the confluence of the Kanawha River and Campbell’s Creek was a massive mineral lick, called the Great Buffalo Lick. It was there that hunters knew to wait for the great beasts and blast them away, and others knew that they could come down collect some salt for the homesteads.

The death of these two bison meant the end for a beast that helped forge so much of what became West Virginia.

No one really talks of bringing back bison, though there are few people who keep them for the novelty meat market.  Large bovines are hard to live with. They are aggressive and dangerous. They spread diseases to cattle, and they gore horses, tear down fences, and run off with brood cows.

They will never roam as wild animals here, and even if they were returned, they would be put on some state management land and then be micromanaged as if they were nothing more than free range cattle.

The bison will never roam this land as wild animals again. They are gone.  And we killed them.

It was a sin made in ignorance, but it was a sin nonetheless.

I sometimes stand in the secondary growth forests that have taken over much of West Virginia when the scores of farm families gave up the land for life in the industrial cities of the Midwest. The forests are thick and thorny. The trails that cut through the hills are carved by white-tailed deer moving through the countryside.  They are narrow trails, where even a short person like myself gets caught on the overhanging limbs and branches.

But I know when the bison were here, the forests were more open. They browsed up high. Their trails were like roads going through the woodland. They also kept big swaths of the land open through their constant grazing.

Land now is kept open only by the mowing machine and the odd stockman who keeps a few head of cows or sheep on some played out pasture.

The forest has all gone to thicket and thorn. It is not the same as it was those centuries before.

It is a land without its big beast, and if you listen carefully, you can hear it mourning.

Yes, it is mourning the passage of the great buffle and the inertia of its hoofbeats and browsing maw.

And so goes the story of the last wild bovine in the Alleghenies, barely a footnote in the annals of history.

But it was so much more.

 

 

 

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Source.

 

Great PBS documentary. Check it out here!

(If you’re in the US!)

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Bison calves

European bison (wisent) are born the same color as the adults:

American bison are born golden pelts:

Of course, American bison calves are much prettier.

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