Runaway buffalo cause commotion in Bethlehem

A two-day roundup ended in a South Street ravine in Coeymans, a few hundred yards over the Bethlehem
A herd of bison cross the New York State Thruway in Selkirk, headed south towards New York City, on Friday, April 24, 2015. The bison got lose from a farm nearby in Schodack.
A herd of bison cross the New York State Thruway in Selkirk, headed south towards New York City, on Friday, April 24, 2015. The bison got lose from a farm nearby in Schodack.

The buffalo, technically bison, roamed and rampaged and forded the Thruway and apparently before that the Hudson River.

In their final hours Friday, before being felled in a hail of rifle fire that Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple bemoaned as something out of “the Wild West,” media, police and other officials tracked the herd from the ground and air.

The two-day roundup ended in a South Street ravine in Coeymans, a few hundred yards over the Bethlehem town line, when “hired guns” deployed by the Schodack farm from which the 15 animals escaped Thursday shot the bull and 14 cows.

Officials lamented the necessity of the shootings, but said there was no way, including tranquilization, to round up the animals safely and return them to Rensselaer County and GEM Farms Buffalo in South Schodack.

And after the animals charged officers, bolted across the New York State Thruway and left a rural patch of Albany County for a more populated area that included several schools, the decision was out of their hands, officials said.

“It became a public safety issue,” Bethlehem police Lt. Thomas Heffernan said. “It was a decision we did not take lightly. That was really a last resort.”

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That does not mean officials were happy with the way it was carried out. Sheriff Craig Apple was irate with the way shooters hired by GEM Farms went about killing the bison, to the point one of the shooters, whom Apple labeled “hired guns,” was taken into custody.

“They fired; one or two of the buffalo went down,” Apple said. “Another one went down, partially wounded. It was floundering around in the water, obviously not close to going down. We wanted that animal down. They refused to put it down.

“They continued to fire blindly down the stream bed, through trees,” the sheriff continued. “I hunt. I’m a gun owner. If you don’t have a clean shot you don’t have a clean shot. Shooting at the backside of a buffalo is not going to put a buffalo down. We wanted that animal down. He refused to do it and continued to fire.

“It was turning into the Wild, Wild West. It was ridiculous. And we put an end to it.”

The shooter whom Apple said refused the directive to put the wounded animal down was taken into custody by authorities. Apple said. The shooter was not identified, and was later released. Apple said no decision has been made on whether charges will be pressed.

“Unfortunately it started to get out of control,” the sheriff said. “There were shots being fired all over the place. We had civilians in the area. It was not a safe scene. We wanted it terminated.”

A short time later, the shooting resumed under a more controlled setting, and the animals were put down at 1:39 p.m.

The shooters on the scene declined comment. Calls to the farm were not returned.

The buffalo on parade dominated social media for much of the morning and into the afternoon. Bethlehem police first received a call at 6 a.m. Friday reporting bison had been sighted on River Road in Selkirk. The herd was moving south, toward Coeymans. Bethlehem police just monitored the scene for an hour.

“At this point there was no public safety concern,” Heffernan said.

Later in the morning on River Road, George Mesick, owner of the farm, had decided to put the animals down, as is his right, citing safety worries, officials said. But the buffalo then charged at officers and kept going — right across both directions of the New York State Thruway.

Thomas Gallagher, a large animal expert with Cornell Cooperative Extension who has worked with GEM, said the bull weighed about 1,300 pounds and the cows 1,000 to 1,100 pounds each.

“As they come at you,” he said, “they look a lot bigger.”

He echoed the sentiments of many that all were lucky no motorists or other civilians were injured.

Gallagher said that with such a large animal with thick skin, tranquilization was not an option. For it to be effective a shooter would have to get within 30 feet, and an effective dosage could be lethal anyway. In addition, bison are not animals that can be transported by trailers; Gallagher said they can and will break through fencing and even walls.

“In this case, a tranquilizer wasn’t going to help the situation,” he said.

In all, the animals traveled more than 25 miles. A state police helicopter was deployed to track the herd, which at times ducked into wooded areas.

Although Bethlehem has seen bear and moose roam its streets, this was its first bison sighting, local officials said. Bison are known to test enclosures, and authorities said this is not the first time buffalo have escaped Gem Farms. And in Schoharie County, searchers roamed the countryside looking for missing bison in 2011 and 2013.

It’s been a strange week in Bethlehem and for Apple, one that began with a Monday landslide that dammed the Normans Kill and threatened to flood parts of three municipalities, and was capped by a 19th century hunt played out against a 21st century backdrop.

“Are you kidding me? A mudslide? Buffalo? “Apple said incredulously. “It has not been a good week.”

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