SI Vault
Bil Gilbert
November 23, 1970
Some call it sport and some call it butchery, but nobody is truly happy as Arizona's 'surplus' bison are shot in a fenced pasture
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November 23, 1970

The Great Buffalo Hunt? Shoot? Slaughter?

Some call it sport and some call it butchery, but nobody is truly happy as Arizona's 'surplus' bison are shot in a fenced pasture

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The whole scheme went broke by 1909, and Jones quickly set off to rope lions in Africa, leaving his creditors with the ranch and the stock, which they divided. Uncle Jimmy Owens, the ranch manager, himself a colorful plainsman who had been mixed up with Jones for years and should have known better, got the buffalo in lieu of back wages.

Uncle Jimmy kept the animals until 1927, when he peddled his herd, 98 head, to the State of Arizona for $10,000. Exactly why the state felt it needed the herd is unclear. Not since prehistoric times has the buffalo been an Arizona native. However, as with so many other things, what is done is done. The Arizona game department is now the indisputable proprietor of 300 buffalo, cannot afford to feed any more than that and must harvest some of them.

The men who seem to have the most real fun at Raymond Ranch are the 25 or so employees of the game commission who—faced with the necessity of the shoot—run it. Game agentry is not the free and easy, outdoorish calling it once was. Game men have to spend increasing time at counseling, rescue work and sitting at desks, and the long weekend at Raymond Ranch gives the Arizona crew a chance to saddle its ponies and pickups, dress up in old hats and chaps and cowboy it around the fields.

The best day is Thursday, before the dudes come. The whole herd is driven into stock pens next to the ranch house, and there is a lot of yippy-ki-yiing, slapping of hats and swinging of ropes as 80 doomed buffalo are sorted out from 150 keepers. The lucky 150 are then turned out of the pen. Bellowing and snorting, they stream across the open range, an old bull first, running with that peculiar humpbacked, stiff-legged rocking-chair gait that can wear down any horse ever foaled. From a buffalo-fancying standpoint, this is the finest moment of the harvest. Seeing 150 buffalo stampeding across Raymond Ranch is nothing compared to what once could be seen. Yet if a poet can know a desert from a grain of sand, perhaps those so inclined, seeing this droplet of a herd, can imagine the old oceans of buffalo.

From this point on, events overtake both poetry and pleasure. Twenty-seven buffalo are scheduled for harvest on Friday, 27 on Saturday, 20 on Sunday and the remaining six on Monday.

Among the hunters is a man who knows too much—an American history teacher. He is sensitive about his role and explains: "I've read a lot about the old buffalo hunters and I wanted to get a little bit of the feel of it. This isn't much of a way to do it, shooting against a fence, but it's all that's left."

The teacher goes out in the first convoy of shooting trucks one morning with his wife and two children and two other gunners, an Air Force officer and a middle-aged land developer, who also have their audiences. The gunning party is driven to the southeast corner of the pasture, told to get out of the pickups and to stand ready on a little knoll. Then buffalo are released from the corral half a mile away and herded along the fence by wardens on horseback. When the animals are directly opposite, the Air Force man shoots, dropping a small bull on the first try from 15 yards.

Squaws used to follow the Sioux, Crow and Cheyenne hunters, and they would hoot, holler and dance in triumph when a buffalo went down. At Raymond Ranch nearly every gunner is followed by his squaw, or at least a child, and the action is much the same, though these relatives carry Instamatic cameras instead of rattles and knives.

The history teacher is next on the shooting line. The mounted wardens drive the two remaining cows past. The bull is still twitching on the ground, and the cows veer past him at a slow trot. The teacher is sweating, his face contorted. He fires and there is a humiliating click—no shell. While he is loading his rifle the cows are chased back and they stand still this time by the dying bull. The teacher knocks one down with a low shot, but she staggers to her feet, blowing blood but otherwise silent. The teacher shoots again and puts the cow down for good.

"I'm embarrassed," he stammers. "Not just because I forgot to load. That first chance was what I'd hoped I'd have, a chance to get one on the move. I guess I just got the shakes seeing a buffalo, thinking about what they were."

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