A cadre of Richmondville men chatted quietly on a dusty gravel road Thursday afternoon. Three sat on four-wheelers, another leaned against his pickup truck.
One peered through a spotting scope hoping to catch a glimpse of his neighbor’s bison that decided to roam free after escaping from their home farm.
Bison are similar to dairy cows, said Graham Fancher, one of the half-dozen people waiting at a spot they believed the herd of 11 bison might head for.
“They always test the limits of their enclosures,” said Fancher, who used to work on the bison farm that’s now missing nearly half its stock.
Thursday was the fourth day of freedom for the woolly beasts, and the farm’s co-owner said he was told the hot day wouldn’t be the best time to try to tranquilize them.
The cooler weather expected today will present a better and safer opportunity to drug them and cart them home.
Tim Hines said he’s hired a professional able to tranquilize the bison and he’s been in frequent contact with a veterinarian — both of whom said to wait until it wasn’t so warm to do anything.
It’s unclear exactly what impact a tranquilizer would have on the animals, and they’re expected to be under more physical stress in high heat.
“I wanted to try today, but these people know more than me. I trust them, and we’re going to try tomorrow,” Hines said from the road.
Meanwhile, people were standing by with two-way radios and cellphones prepared to react if somebody spots the small group of wayward bison.
It’s relatively easy to guide them in a direction — bison will walk in the opposite direction of people, so the goal of corralling them entails surrounding them from a distance and slowly herding them in the right direction.
Fancher said if they’re spotted, one primary goal will be to avoid scaring them so they aren’t pushed too far from their home.
There was some hope among the group that the situation might resolve itself.
“They know where their home is,” said Mike Bove, another volunteer hoping to help his neighbor solve the problem.
Fancher added that the bison are matriarchal — they follow the lead of a female.
Rick Bishop said trying to find the bison is like looking for wild game — they blend in well with the surrounding environment, despite their great size. “You never know where they’re going to be,” he said.
The group of watchers all maintained the same hope, that the bison simply find their way back to the farm or follow a person if they’re found. The bison might follow a farmhand but would get spooked by a four-wheeler, they said.
Although the bison are sold for meat, Bishop said having to shoot them would be an awful last resort.
And it wouldn’t be simple, either, he said.
The farm doesn’t sell the meat of as many as 11 bison all at once, so the time it would take to process them and the freezer space needed to keep the meat would be concerns as well.
“The ultimate goal here is to get ’em back where they belong,” Fancher said. He added another goal is doing so without any property getting destroyed.
Like with other livestock, bison get free, said Dave Carter, executive director of the Colorado-based National Bison Association, a nonprofit with more than 1,000 members in all 50 states as well as abroad.
He said bison will wander in times of drought, to seek water or greener pastures. It’s mating season as well, he said, which can be another factor leading to escape, especially if there are young bulls in the group.
“This is the breeding season, so they’re kind of jostling around, trying to figure out who’s at the top of the pecking order,” Carter said.
That situation sometimes leads the bison to simply push through a fence, he said.
Sometimes, farmers train the bison by periodically giving them a treat of cubes with molasses in them. They use the same treats to lure escapees back home, Carter said.
He said it’s true that people are killed by bison periodically in places like Yellowstone National Park, but he attributes that to “how stupid people can be.”
“As long as you give ’em the distance and don’t provoke them, they’re not looking to attack anybody. They just don’t want to feel threatened,” Carter said.
He said ranchers work around the bison “flight zone” to get them to go where they want them.
“If you position yourself in a certain position, moving forward, they’ll want to move away from you. As long as you can do that without a lot of hooting and hollering, you can kind of ease these animals along,” Carter said.
Bison farming is growing throughout the country, Carter said, as word spreads about the qualities of bison meat.
“People are discovering not only is this a lean and healthy meat, it tastes great as well,” Carter said.
Schoharie County Sheriff Tony Desmond said he’s monitoring the situation. The bison are not in a densely populated area but there are homes in the vicinity, he said.
He said his only concern is if the bison get near the road. The massive beasts could cause great damage to a vehicle and a motorist in the event of an accident, he said.