Rancher delicately tries hand at bringing up bison

April 27, 1992|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Staff Writer

BIRDSVILLE -- Big Boy hung his great shaggy head low and huffed vapor from his nostrils, staring a visitor down, looking every bit the king of the hill. He's not the last American buffalo, but he's the only bull in sight.

And life is good for Big Boy and his mate, Momma, here in the horse country of southern Anne Arundel County. There's plenty of feed, a nice view of the 36-acre spread, and seldom is heard a discouraging word. In fact, many people passing by on Solomons Island Road treat the two buffalo like celebrities.

"All day long, people stop on the side of the road, take pictures," said Ricky Owens, who owns the place. The two buffalo, he said, "most times they sleep on the hillside like they're posing for everybody."

Just keeping up the tradition. For years, buffalo have been majestic in pose, appearing on postage stamps, a $10 bill, state seals, the seal of the Department of the Interior, and of course, the buffalo nickel, whose designer said that his quest for the quintessential American symbol led him to the buffalo. Or American bison, to be precise.

Mr. Owens is attempting no grand symbolic gesture about the Great American West. He just liked the idea of raising bison.

He already had a few Black Angus cattle when he decided to buy these two buffalo from a South River man 18 months ago. The bull was just a baby at the time, the cow was a year old, and Mr. Owens picked up the pair for a song: $1,000, less than half the market price.

"It's something different I was going to try. 'Cause everybody's got cattle," said Mr. Owens, who also runs a towing business. "That's another reason I like them, they're kind of rare.

Fortunately, buffalo are not as rare as they once were, after white men in the 19th century slaughtered herds that had been estimated in the tens of millions in the Western plains. By the late 1880s, the buffalo population in the United States was put at between 500 and 1,000, said Kim Dowling, an official of the National Buffalo Association in Fort Pierre, S.D.

The NBA and the American Bison Association in Denver, now estimate that between 100,000 and 120,000 buffalo live in the United States, most in the West and Southwest.

Buffalo, which were known to live along the Potomac River area before they were killed or driven off by colonists, are being raised now by several Marylanders, including farmers in Cecil, Harford, Baltimore and Prince George's counties.

In Birdsville, Big Boy and Momma live in a sloping four-acre pen alongside Solomons Island Road, quarters they share with a pygmy goat named J.R.

Behind them stands the brick house with the green-and-white striped awning, a hot tub and swimming pool out back.

It's not the sort of place where the deer and the antelope play, but Mr. Owens hopes to make his own little contribution to the resurgence of the American buffalo.

He's planning a small herd, 10 head. Before he goes any further, though, and before his two buffalo grow to full size, Mr. Owens figures he'll have to reinforce the fence, perhaps install a shock-generating electrical wire.

In the past 18 months of buffalo ownership, Mr. Owens has

learned a few things. He has learned that while they sometimes seem as slow and docile as cattle, American buffalo are fast, agile beasts.

They can jump a 3- or 4-foot fence from a standing position, and they can run a 35 mph clip for a few hundred feet. And despite generations of domestication, they retain a wild streak.

"They're an animal you don't want to turn your back on," said Ginnah Newton, spokeswoman for the American Bison Association.

The two buffalo on the Owens place have already jumped the pen fence once and ambled down to the apple orchard for some fresh fruit. Mr. Owens has not seen their wild side yet, but he doesn't like to take chances.

"I can stand out there and scratch him on the head," Mr. Owens said of Big Boy, "but I'm not crazy about it. All it takes is one time." He referred to the animal's lethal horns, which point out from the head on the bull and curve in on the cow.

Mr. Owens reluctantly obliged a photographer, however, climbing the 3-foot fence and stepping into the pen, edging nervously over to Big Boy, who stands about 5 feet tall at the hump and weighs about 1,200 pounds.

He and Momma eat about $500 a year worth of hay and sweet feed, a mix of molasses and grains. Full-grown bulls weigh nearly a ton; cows are full-grown at about 1,200 pounds.

Mr. Owens imagines he'll keep these two buffalo and perhaps sell future members of the herd for meat at a cattle market in Virginia.

The market for buffalo meat -- touted as richer in protein and lighter in cholesterol than beef -- has been growing steadily, said Bob Dineen, president of Rocky Mountain Natural Meats, a buffalo meat distributor in Denver.

For years, Mr. Dineen said, people were reluctant to eat it because they incorrectly assumed the buffalo was an endangered species.

They aren't, but because buffalo are fewer in number than beef cattle and because their more secure accommodations cost a bit more, buffalo meat usually retails for twice the price of beef, Mr. Dineen said.

"Yeah, I've had 'em," said Mr. Owens, asked his opinion of buffalo burgers. "I think it's better than beef."

Only 18 months, and he's already talking like a buffalo man -- and already recognizing the beast's marketing potential.

Mr. Owens plans to sell two 2-acre house lots on his property, and confesses that he sometimes envisions erecting a for-sale sign on Solomons Island Road, something like: "Picture a home where the buffalo roam."

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