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Meet the Virginia farmers who are helping preserve bison from extinction

Meet the Virginia farmers who are helping preserve bison from extinction

Rob Ferguson remembers when 260 of his bison escaped. 

“A rusty chain broke off an exterior gate,” said Ferguson, who co-owns Virginia Bison Company at Cibola Farms in Culpeper with Mike Sipes. “They were all excited and playing, and they dispersed miles apart. The sheriff came and got us because they were getting ready to cross the street going toward town.”

Ferguson likened it to trying to round up deer. After an exhausting day searching and calling the herd, all the bison were safely returned to the farm.

It’s an entertaining story now, but he said it was anxiety-inducing at the time. Bison are wild animals—aggressive, temperamental and smart.

Bison require a different approach

Bison farmers have a genuine fascination and appreciation for the big animals, and raising them requires a different approach. Strong wildlife fencing is used to keep them contained, and farmers are mostly hands-off.

“We try not to really fool with them,” Sipes said. “Except for maybe once a year during round-up. Even our de-worming process or any medical stuff is as minimal hands-on as possible.”

Bison primarily eat grass and like to roam. And while they’re not as hard on the ground as cattle, Cibola practices mob grazing, or short-duration, high-intensity grazing. After a few days of grazing and wallowing in the dirt to deter flies, they’re rotated to new pastures so grass can rejuvenate.

When it’s time to work them through a corral or move to a new field, they don’t respond well to “whooping and hollering” as Sipes calls it. Instead, they’re called and led. Once a dominant cow starts moving, the rest will follow. It’s their herd instinct.

“We kind of have them trained,” Ferguson said. “They know that they’re going from a pasture that’s run out of resources to something that’s green and lush.”

Tricks work on instincts

Mike Morris, owner of Melrose Bison Farm in Campbell County, attests that bison farming requires a lot of learning, trial and error. He said the best way to work bison is to use their instincts against them.

“You basically have to trick them. They’re naturally curious—when you open a gate, they want to go through it. So, I’ll let them go through and then close it,” Morris said. “They’re not as much work as cattle, but it’s a lot more intense. You’re always kind of redesigning things.”

Morris once had a bull that would jump on his fence and crush it. Tired of frequent repairs, he reinforced the upper part of the fence with horizontal steel bars.

And while a bison herd looks calm and content grazing in a pasture, they’re highly territorial and dangerous. “You can’t just go out and walk in the middle of the field,” Morris said. “Once they get excited, all bets are off.”

Herds slowly recovering

History books describe the tragic plight of bison during the 19th century. Prior to westward expansion, roughly 60 million roamed the Great Plains, but within the century they were systemically slaughtered to near-extinction.

“At the end of the 1800s, there were less than 1,000,” Morris said.

Public and private conservation efforts are slowly increasing populations. Between national and state parks and independent bison farms, there are about 385,000 in North America today according to the National Bison Association. But the expense of raising bison, along with the space needed, can be difficult to manage. Numbers are growing though, and as the commercial market expands, more people become interested.

“It’s farmers like us and national parks that are really putting in the effort and bringing them back,” Sipes said.