Trouble at Tatonka Plains
Several area residents have an encounter they’ll never forget
by Cynthia Brekke | September 14, 2004
The late country singer and composer, Roger Miller, sang a silly tune that said: ‘You can’t rollerskate in a buffalo herd.’ Why this odd ditty comes to mind is as wild as the story of the free-range buffalo that recently roamed the Tamarack and McGregor countryside, eluding capture and worse for almost three weeks before being put down.
By now, the tale has been chewed and re-chewed in coffee shops all over the area. Everybody knows the ending but, as radio personality Paul Harvey would say, this is ‘the rest of the story.’
It all began around the last week of July at Tatonka Plains Bison Ranch, owned by Keith Payton and located southeast of Tamarack. Mating season sparked a power struggle within the 25 to 30 head of buffalo who reside there. As these animals are, technically, wild, their behavior is not uncommon. The breeding bulls position for dominance within the herd, and the odd one out is just that — pushed out. As a result, a rejected buffalo began romping through the countryside with little or nothing that could contain it.
Frank and Emily DeMenge live north of Tamarack on Goshawk St. (a.k.a. Co. Rd. 6). Frank, a friend of Keith’s who keeps an eye on things when needed, began receiving phone calls from residents in the area. The buffalo showed up at the Gene Boyes residence, Dave and Marcia Peterson’s, the Bolstad’s and Dave & Sue Gauthier’s, to name a few. Frank began a chase that would be a proverbial tug-of-war with the buffalo. The animal, determined to travel west, had been spotted on Kestrel Ave. south of Tamarack (old Co. Rd. 16).
Marcia Peterson, a postal carrier for the Tamarack/Wright area, had been running errands and encountered the buffalo in her driveway... in the dark.
“It was Wed. night and I’d just came back from McGregor, at about quarter to ten,” Marcia recalled. “I looked up the driveway and I could see eyes reflecting, like deer eyes, only they were, like, six feet off the ground!” At first, Marcia thought that maybe it was a bear, standing on up on hind legs... but seconds later it was clear what was heading in her direction. “It was coming toward me. He looked like a monster and I could just picture him flipping my car, so I went off into the field and gave him the driveway.” The buffalo continued onto the road.
Once up to the house, Marcia hurried inside, all excited to tell her husband, Dave, what she had just encountered. “I said, ‘David, there’s a buffalo on the road,’ and he says, ‘Oh, it’s on the road?’” His reaction was a bit of a let down, but what she didn’t know was that Dave had spotted it earlier, in the pasture behind the house. He had already contacted Frank, who was planning to come the next morning to drive it back to the ranch. However, the buffalo had other ideas.
“I told David, ‘he’s not in the field, he’s heading west.’ So we went to see if he went north on the township road or went south. We figured if he went south, everything would be fine but if he went north, there was no way someone wouldn’t run into him. We caught up with him by Bolstad’s, right on the county road. He was in the westbound lane, heading west. If we hadn’t been driving slow, watching for him... someone going the speed limit would have run right into him. He blended so well into the blackness.”
Marcia made a late-night call to Frank. “You couldn’t see him ahead of time and if someone had run into him, they might have sued Payton,” Marcia continued. “That’s the scariest thing I’ve ever seen on the road.”
Throughout the whole ordeal, Frank chased the buffalo back toward the ranch three times. “Marcia Peterson called up at about 10:30 or 11 o’clock one night and said it was going right down the highway and, if they’d been driving like other people, they would have hit it.” He and his son, Josh, found the animal on Kestrel Ave., near Bob and Rita Perry’s dome house, south of Tamarack. They drove the buffalo back toward the ranch. “It took quite a bit to get him turned around and in the other direction,” Frank went on. “But, once I got him going, I had him up to about 45 miles an hour. Rocks were flying and hitting the truck.” But the buffalo would only go as far as Gene Boyes, miles short of the goal. It went up the driveway and disappeared into the dark.
Around the eighth of Aug., Frank, along with Allan Ostrike from McGrath, had the buffalo behind the Gene Boyes residence and were planning to put the animal down. “That day, it took off and disappeared behind the buffalo farm in the state land,” Frank said. “We went out there for four or five hours in my jeep, looking for it, but never found it.”
On Aug. 12, the animal was spotted again. About 5:30 in the morning, Dan Glass called Frank. He had chased it off the road down by the old Porter farm [now Mark and Linda DeMenge’s property, west of Tamarack]. The buffalo then showed up further west, at Art and Minyon Rian’s residence, right outside McGregor. “They turned him around and chased him back because I had an appointment in Aitkin,” Frank continued. It ended up ripping apart spruce trees in Brent Amundson’s yard.
The buffalo was now wandering dangerously close to McGregor and going onto Hwy. 210, clearly posing a threat to public safety. It was time to find the animal and put it down.
Frank put in a call to Brent Speldrich, DNR Conservation Officer. “I asked if we could get a helicopter or an airplane out to spot it,” Frank said. “I’d been dealing with this for going on three weeks and I had to get back to work myself.” Brent was unable to obtain air support for the search but was heading for that area himself, so Frank told him where the buffalo was last spotted and where the last tracks were. “I went to pick up the bobcat so that, when I got it shot, I had some way to get it out of there.”
Brent received the call at about 8:30 a.m. and oddly enough (earlier that morning) he had come across something unusual. “I was on [Hwy.] 210, about where Amundson’s live, and saw a great big (for lack of a better term) cow pie on the road and I thought, ‘Holy cow, that’s a lot!’” He figured someone’s bull or cow was loose and looked around, but not seeing anything, he wrote it off. Frank had seen the same ‘cow pie’ on his way to Aitkin, but never put two and two together. He, at first, thought it was a dead animal on the road and didn’t pay it any mind. It was only later that the ‘pie’ turned into something significant. “I couldn’t believe it,” Frank said. “He was right on 210!”
While Frank retrieved his bobcat, Brent continued looking. He searched the minimum maintenance roads behind Amundson’s and saw tracks. He then drove south to the cell phone towers and checked for tracks, speaking to a couple of landowners who had seen nothing. He went back to the tracks he’d found and went onto a hay field owned by Marv Wyman. He went about 25 steps and found tracks, following them to the end of a dike. When he turned the corner, there the buffalo stood, 40 to 50 yards from the trail Brent was on. Not only was Brent far from his vehicle, but his only protection was his side arm. “I thought, ‘Oh, this is smart.’ I had nothing on me but my pistol.” He had come across the animal quietly and left the same way. Upon arriving at his truck, he called Frank to let him know the buffalo was located.
The plan was for Frank to take the animal down when they found it. Keith Payton had given Frank instructions on where to hit it to bring it down and what to do with it afterward. When the two men approached the animal, it was laying down in the trail, facing them. Frank was aiming for a spot on the side, in the neck, just behind the head but the buffalo was lying at the wrong angle.
“I was carrying a 30.06, bolt action,” Frank chuckled. “Not very fast shooting compared to Brent’s.”
In the meantime, Brent was observing the situation as it played out. “He kneels down to take a shot and he didn’t shoot and didn’t shoot, and I’m behind him going, ‘SHOOT... SHOOT!’ The buffalo now sees us, stands up and I’m going, “SHOOT... SHOOT!’ Frank was trying to aim for a shot in the neck but the buffalo didn’t present a good, clean shot so Frank didn’t take it.”
Once on it’s feet, the animal walked in the oposite direction, out of sight, and the two men followed. What happened next caught them completely by surprise.
“It trotted off the other direction but came right back because it knew that was the trail it came in on and that’s where it wanted to leave from,” Frank commented. Now the huge animal was facing him squarely. “I was standing right in his way. When I first shot, he was about a hundred feet from me.” The buffalo didn’t go down and Frank immediately jumped in the brush and poplar saplings, off the trail. “My second shot was on it’s way by, and then Brent opened up with his rifle.”
The buffalo was gaining momentum and heading straight toward Brent. At 6-feet 8-inches tall, Brent has an impressive presence, but not compared to the huge, angry animal barreling toward him.
“Now it’s coming at me, because I’m standing in the trail,” Brent continued, “And I can’t shoot because Frank is still on the side of the trail and I don’t want to shoot at him, obviously.” Brent moved the same direction as Frank moved, but the buffalo turned as well. “It came at me and was aimed at me again.”
Brent took aim too, first at the top of the buffalo’s head/shoulders area, pulling the trigger. The animal didn’t stop. “I thought, ‘Oh, crap, this is going to hurt.’” It was about 25 feet from him. Brent then pulled the trigger on his rifle as fast as he could. Every time he moved to avoid it’s charge, the animal moved right along with him, still coming head-on. Finally, on the seventh or eighth shot, Brent saw the bullet make a red mark on the buffalo’s back bone as it penetrated. “It actually hit the ground eight feet in front of me and slid by me.” From the time it hit the ground, to the time it stopped, it slid 25 feet.
Once the smoke cleared, the pair starting thinking about the precarious position they’d placed themselves in. “After we shot the dang thing and it was laying there, I thought to myself, ‘you idiot, you’ve never done anything like this,” Frank recalled. “We’ve worked the animals, but we were always in a vehicle, a tractor, or four-wheeler... some way to get the heck out of there... and here I walked down there!”
Brent’s reaction was similar. “I did call my wife after it happened and told her something like, ‘Honey, guess what I got to do today...”
When Keith Payton had a Labor Day celebration at the ranch a week ago, the main course was buffalo. It had been the largest breeder bull on the ranch but was overpowered by another dominant bull. Just how large was it? Dressed out (gutted and skinned, no head) it weighed in at around 1,200 to 1,400 pounds. On the hoof, the animal was over 2,000 pounds. It stood, at eye level, approximately six to six and a half feet tall and, since the back hump is higher than the head, it was probably closer to seven feet. According to Frank, Keith planned to take steaks and ground meat to the people whose yards were damaged by the animal.
Frank doesn’t recommend approaching a loose buffalo without a vehicle. Buffalo can become fiercely aggressive and can’t be pushed. The best thing to do is call the authorities and stay away from the animal. While Payton’s herd used to be worked with, tagged and given shots, this herd isn’t used to much human contact and they are, as stated before, wild animals. “I’ll never do it again, that’s for sure,” Frank said, referring to approaching a buffalo without a vehicle.
Have they ever considered putting reflective tape on the buffalo’s tails and horns, so they can be seen in the dark? Frank burst out laughing. “You hold ‘em down and I’ll put the tape on!”
This article first appeared in the September 14, 2004 issue of the Voyageur Press.