More than 100 years ago, an Arizona cattleman worried about his herd keeping any meat on the hoof after a season in the searing desert heat.
What, he wondered, would you get if you crossed a steer with a buffalo?
The answer is a beefalo, the result of modern-day artificial insemination.
For Charles J. (Buffalo) Jones, though, that was not an option and although he did succeed in producing a hardier, beefier breed of range animal, the idea never really caught on with either the buffalo or the cattle. But it did ultimately leave Arizona with a problem: What to do with those buffalo?
The progeny of 57 American bison had been rounded up from the Palo Duro River Valley of the Texas Panhandle by Jones and one of his hands, James (Uncle Jimmy) Owens.
Over 25 years, the bison wound up first in Kansas, then Utah and finally back in Arizona, at House Rock Valley on Arizona’s Kaibab Plateau, north of the Grand Canyon.
By 1927, Jones was gone and Owens was unloading buffalo to any interested takers. His last 98 went to the state of Arizona for $10,000 from public donations. Owens thought he got a pretty good deal.
So did the buffalo. They thrived, and in 1945 some were moved to establish a second herd at the Raymond Ranch, 30 miles southeast of Flagstaff. That range became, truly, a home where the buffalo roam and the deer and the antelope play.
But the buffalo reproduce at 25% each year, so to prevent overgrazing that would deprive all species of natural food, the Arizona Game and Fish Department maintains each herd at about 100 head.
This is where the touchy part comes in. The surplus animals are shot.
Arizona’s 3-week buffalo season opened at House Rock and Raymond Ranch last weekend. For the 61 hunters among 557 who applied for permits, it was literally a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
None who were successful will ever be allowed to shoot another buffalo in Arizona, and most are successful--virtually 100% at Raymond Ranch, where the animals have 15,717 acres to run but hardly any place to hide, and about 80% at House Rock, where hunters often must stalk their prey over 67,530 acres in the rugged back country of the Kaibab.
Through this year the hunt has been for Arizona residents only. Next year, it will be open to non-residents as well.
Jim Ludvigson, 40, of Dewey, Ariz., said before his hunt: “I’ve been trying to get a permit off and on for 20 years. Arizona has 10 big-game species, and I’ve gotten all of ‘em but a buffalo and a bear.”
On the other hand, Bill McLean, 44, of Tempe, said, “I probably shouldn’t say this, but this was the first year I’ve applied.”
McLean will get his chance Friday.
By the luck of the draw, Ludvigson and his nephew, Scott Stevens, 33, of Skull Valley, Ariz., both were selected. Stevens’ brother Mark, a veterinarian, got his buffalo 3 years ago.
Now all three have theirs, and Ludvigson, who also has a record elk to his credit, now has only one more goal, a bear.
The headquarters of the Raymond Ranch is 10 miles of single-lane dirt road south of Interstate 40, near Meteor Crater, a popular geological stop east of Flagstaff. Visitor comforts are minimal: a pair of portable outhouses set away from the stone house occupied by the ranch manager, Earl Brees, who has a satellite dish to help him pass the time.
At 6:25 a.m., a bright orange flaming sphere rises directly over Coon Mountain, revealing a few men and a couple of small boys standing around a campfire in the morning chill.
“Can I see your permits, please?” asks Brees, who packs a pistol.
Permits are applied for and issued in three categories at the two sites--adult bulls, cows and yearlings--so that the proper ratios can be maintained in the herds. The average hunter can’t tell the difference, but Brees goes along to designate which animals to shoot, when to shoot and where to shoot them. He is very careful that the buffalo will be dispatched as swiftly and cleanly as possible.
“Lots of times the first shot stops ‘em and the second shot kills ‘em,” Brees said.
If it takes more than two, he steps in. But he hasn’t had to do that for 4 years and only 7 times in 11 years.
So, as a precaution, he first drives Ludvigson and Stevens in his pickup to a rustic shooting range nearby.
The previous day, another hunter failed to bring his animal down with the first shot, then hit a different buffalo with his second.
The skinned carcasses of both are hanging in an open shed. One will be served as buffalo steaks at the Cocohino County jail.
The hunter, who will be able to keep the one he legally shot, may be cited for his error.
After going to the shooting range, Ludvigson and Stevens climb into Brees’ pickup, bounce along the ruts up over a ridge to find perhaps half the herd a few hundred yards away. Since buffalo are less wary of a vehicle than they are of men, Brees drives slowly up to within 70 or 80 yards, and Stevens gets out and settles quietly into a sitting shooting position, his arms resting on his knees.
There is no wind, but the smell of sage is in the air. Brees has his eyes on one yearling in particular, but Stevens will have to make the shot into the morning sun. Then the animal moves into the clear, away from others, and Brees gives the go-ahead.
The rifle, a scoped 7-millimeter magnum, shatters the silence and the yearling, startled and shocked, stumbles 10 yards, then drops and rolls over on one side, dead.
The other animals hardly move. Instead, the bulls slowly converge on the downed beast and nudge it with their horns.
Tom Britt, Region 2 supervisor for Game and Fish, explains that when one member of a herd is shot: “They’ll react in one of two ways. They get either curious or aggressive. Once I saw a bull hook the downed animal and flip him 5 feet in the air.”
Buffalo, which can weigh up to 2,000 pounds, are capable of extraordinary feats. Britt says they can jump 56-inch-high fences or run right through them at 30 m.p.h.
“They can run 15 m.p.h. all day long,” Britt said.
The mighty buffalo--there were as many as 60 million of them at one time--providing food, clothing and even housing, was a staple of the Plains Indians, who regarded it as a sacred animal. They killed them by the thousands, but there were still hundreds of thousands left when the white hunters came and devastated the herds.
“There were only 92 at the turn of the century,” Britt said.
But today, with the population back up to 20,000, the buffalo is no longer endangered. In fact, herds must be culled to be kept manageable.
Here in Arizona, culling started in the 1930s, coldly and efficiently, with the animals herded into corrals and shot--the way of the West, to the horror of animal lovers everywhere.
Under outside pressure, in 1973 the Game and Fish Department modified the method and began releasing the doomed animals from corrals before they were shot, and in recent years they aren’t rounded up at all. The hunters are taken wherever the animals happen to be.
Ludvigson finds his near Stevens’. Several are strung out in front of him, but then most stroll away and leave one by itself, squarely in Ludvigson’s sights.
“The one directly in front of you, by itself,” Brees tells Ludvigson, quietly.
Ludvigson flips off his safety, aims for about 10 seconds, and again the rifle cracks. Again, the animal lurches about 10 yards and falls. Again, the other animals come over to nudge the body, then drift away.
It’s not quite 8 o’clock when Brees said: “It’s getting kind of warm. You don’t want to leave that hide on too long.”
Stevens and Ludvigson move in to skin the animals where they lie.
Ludvigson, who happens to be a meat inspector, will have a trophy for his den, lean buffalo meat for his table and the extra meat and hide to sell, as he chooses.
Britt’s wife got her buffalo last year and recouped all but $200 of her investment, including the $240 yearling permit--bulls are $750, cows $450.
“It came out to about 66 cents a pound for 320 pounds of meat,” Britt said.
Brees said: “It’s a good buy. You’re talking T-bones and everything.”
Plus, the herds are genetically pure and disease free. Only three buffalo have died of unknown causes in the last 10 years.
Britt says: “What we’re doing with ‘em is at least as fitting as hauling ‘em off to a slaughterhouse or keeping ‘em in somebody’s back yard. What are the options?”