The bison of South Monterey County have taken a strange journey, and it’s not over yet.
Thursday, July 6, 2006
I’m driving through Fort Hunter Liggett in a blue pick-up with Regina Quiñones, her partner Somar (who declines to give his last name) and their 7-year-old son Okhuse. We are hunting for a herd of nine bison rumored to be in “the Jackhammer Dropzone,” a training area the military uses to practice dropping big things out of the sky.
Ever since Maiwo Agdeppa washed his hands of the situation, and David Saunders signed ownership of the bison to Quiñones, her tight-knit and decidedly odd little family has made most of the efforts to round up 74 stray bison in South Monterey County. For more than two months now they have devoted their lives to the bison—living in their car on the side of the road, responding to calls from locals and the authorities, printing fliers, tracking the animals by foot through the thick foliage on brutal day and night maneuvers, acquiring aerial shots of the landscape, mollifying angry locals and, above all, remaining “lawful”—a term Quiñones uses to mean remaining on the moral high ground.
“We have stayed lawful through it all,” Quiñones tells me. “These animals are great medicine. It has been a miracle, there have been many miracles, that we’ve recovered so many. There are many things looking out.”
Somar nods sagely from the passenger seat.
“These bison have changed many lives, the medicine of these animals. We’ve seen people cry, break up, wake up in their presence,” he says with his strained New Jersey accent. “And they can be invisible.”
Okhuse, their elfin son, looks up at me from the backseat and smiles. He’s home-schooled, Quiñones tells me. For the last two months school has been very weird indeed.
On the rain-drenched afternoon of March 28, deep in the interior of South County, a transport trailer nearly overturned on a muddy switchback. Startled, the driver veered off the road onto the shoulder and sank into deep muck.
It had been raining solidly for days on end, and try as he might, the driver couldn’t coax the truck out of the mud beside Sapague Road, a few miles northwest of Nacimiento Lake. Exhausted from a two week-long haul from South Dakota and worried about the safety of his big rig, he decided to unload some of his living cargo in an effort to lighten the truck’s burden. Perhaps panicked, the driver inadvertently opened all of the stock trailer’s divided compartments at once. With startled snorts and a chaotic rumble, 74 Plains Bison emptied off the trailer to a newfound freedom.
When the startled young buffalo bolted in the direction of their intended home, a nearby 500-acre nature preserve, it looked as though the driver might get lucky. Unfortunately, the huge animals simply tore through the preserve’s fences and scattered onto surrounding ranches. With help from some local ranchers, the driver attempted to herd the bison back toward the preserve—but these efforts were futile, hopelessly hindered by the rain and muck.
The next day, a local man named Gary Williams attempted a brash buffalo round-up using dogs and ATVs. He succeeded only in panicking the buffalo and driving them helter-skelter across the landscape. By the time the owners of the buffalo, a group calling itself the Chumash Bison Company, arrived on the scene, the animals were scattered in small herds across South Monterey County and calls were already coming in from nervous, amused and angry property owners.
A Vanishing Race
Native Americans’ deep connection with bison, which survived for thousands of years, was destroyed at the dawn of the 19th Century. The end came following Lewis and Clark’s reports of abundant furs and hides along the Missouri River in the early 1800s. In as little as 30 years, the trickle of fur traders developed into wholesale slaughter.
The arrival of the railroad in buffalo territory rapidly fed the East Coast’s cravings for buffalo hides. Then the US Army encouraged the animals’ total destruction, as a military tactic to starve Native Americans into surrender.
By 1880 the bison were doomed. There was no natural and political refuge for the animals. Poachers even raided the Yellowstone Park herd with impunity, despite regulations prohibiting hunting on park grounds. When an 1894 inventory in Yellowstone reported only 20 remaining buffalo, Congress rushed to pass the National Park Protective Act, which imposed stiff fines or imprisonment for buffalo poaching.
As the Yellowstone herd struggled for survival, unprotected buffalo outside the park were wiped out. In Lost Park, Colorado, poachers exterminated four buffalo in 1897, likely the last unprotected free-ranging bison in the country. As wild bison diminished to the edge of oblivion, private herds began to crop up and were moved around the country, eventually arriving in California, where they were not native.
The presence of bison in Monterey County is not without precedent. In the 1890s, the Winston brothers, local businessmen who owned several Pacific Grove hotels, brought a herd of bison to the Peninsula and later sold them to the Pacific Improvement Company. The bison were penned at the Pebble Beach Hotel, and several frequently roamed 17-Mile Drive.
According to Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History archivist Esther Trosow, the bison were not always tranquil. Legend has it that one of the bison decided to mosey through downtown Pacific Grove one afternoon, causing a panic among the community.
“They chased the buffalo down to Lovers Point, where it leapt into the ocean and swam around,” Trosow says. “It apparently caused quite a commotion.”
The most famous herd of bison in California resides on Catalina Island. Imported in 1924 for the silent film version of Zane Grey’s Western tale The Vanishing American, the herd flourished, growing to 600. For decades the herd was routinely culled and auctioned. Recently, an organization called the Catalina Island Conservancy conducted a study that showed the optimum number for the island was between 150 and 200, so 100 bison were relocated home to the Great Plains.
“The big difference is you can tell a cow what to do, but you gotta ask the buffalo nicely,” Regina Quiñones says with a wry smile. She would know. An original member of the Chumash Bison Company, Quiñones handpicked the ill-fated bison now in South County from various herds in South Dakota. The Chumash Bison Company was the brainchild of Quiñones and two men, David Saunders and Maiwo Agdeppa.
Originally, the idea was to bring a herd of bison from South Dakota to Ozena Valley in Ventura County. The buffalo would be bred for meat. Agdeppa’s band of Chumash struggle to make ends meet, even while the Santa Inez Band of the Chumash owns a casino that has proven to be a source of prosperity.
Bison ranching seemed to be a conscientious, sustainable and potentially lucrative source of revenue for the Chumash. Surprisingly, it was Quiñones and Saunders, neither of whom are members of the tribe, who traveled to South Dakota to pick out the bison.
“Maiwo, myself and David Saunders—we wanted to work with the bison medicine, work to get buffalo back into the indigenous diets,” Quiñones explains. “David Saunders and I went up and met the ranchers in South Dakota and picked them out. These animals are show-herd stock. You use them for breeding. You don’t use them for meat for a few generations and you can’t mix them with other types of bison. They’re a purer stock.”
It was a reasonable-sounding business plan. The stopover in South Monterey County was meant to be temporary—just long enough for the bison to adjust to their new climate, and to give the Chumash Bison Company time to prepare the herd’s new home in Ozena Valley. Within days of the herd’s escape into the overgrown thickets and fields of South Monterey County, the nascent Chumash Bison Company was rife with dispute and headed toward complete dissolution.
“Immediately there were a lot of problems, conflicts, disrespect to our tribe and to our elders from individuals who’ve gotten involved,” Agdeppa says. “It just turned into a big old fiasco and we didn’t want anything more to do with it. Regina chose to take ownership. They’re her problem now.”
A Tribe Apart
After Williams’ posse of ATVs and dogs scattered the bison across the countryside, they marauded through vineyards, farmland, pastures, across the military base and even onto roads and highways. Calls poured in from all over South County.
“The problem was, nobody had any experience rounding these things up,” says local resident Joe Roth, who was instrumental in early efforts to contain the bison. “You can’t put a rope around their neck cause it’ll crush their larynx. You gotta ease them around.”
Before long, the inevitable occurred when the first buffalo was killed—shot dead by a local near Bryson-Hysperia Road as he tried to herd them.
“It was a matter of personal safety and that’s our number-one concern,” Quiñones says. “But it could have been avoided. It was wrong.”
The bison’s death was devastating to Agdeppa. Sensing disaster and afraid of the liability surrounding property damage or even personal injury or death, he formally bowed out of the situation and returned to Ventura County. Initially, the Chumash elder Kote Lotah also said he wanted nothing more to do with the situation, but before long he became a primary force in the containment of the rogue animals.
Not long after the death of the first buffalo, according to several witnesses, Quiñones managed to “call” 35 of the bison off Bryson-Hysperia Road and to a sheep rancher’s land by singing them Lakota songs.
“They’re from South Dakota,” Quiñones explains, matter-of-factly, “so these are the songs they recognize.”
Once on the land, Kote Lotah, with help from the ranchers, managed to corral the animals into smaller pens. The bison were eventually transported to a secure grazing facility on Lotah’s land. Despite their indirect cooperation, tensions between Quiñones and Lotah ran high enough that Lotah would not even speak to her.
“Kote fought tooth and nail with her over everything,” says a local who asked to remain anonymous. “I don’t know if it was because she was a woman or not Chumash or whatever. But I’ll tell you what, without Kote I don’t think they’d have accomplished much.”
Although Lotah also declined to be interviewed for this story, a number of locals confirm Lotah’s effectiveness in capturing the bison. Most locals were hesitant to speak on record about the incident, saying that they didn’t want to be involved and that the whole situation had been divisive enough among the community.
“Truly and honestly, the community didn’t help a shit,” says one resident of Lockwood. “You’d think it would be like in the movies where they all pull up in their trucks and trailers to help. Instead we just got a lot of complaints. It’s a miracle not more of the bison have died.”
Much of the tension between Lotah and Quiñones seems to have stemmed from the fact that David Saunders, the original owner of the bison, signed ownership of the herd over to Quiñones when she complained that it was impossible to get any cooperation with state and military agencies without it.
“I was powerless without ownership of the bison,” Quiñones says. “And yet, at the time, we were the only ones willing to take responsibility for them.”
Over the remainder of the month of March, things suddenly looked up. With the help from John Ludkiss, the 1995 Cutting Horse World Champion rodeo rider, and assisted by special buffalo-herding dogs, Lotah rounded up another 18 of the bison and transported them to his land.
But on April 30 tragedy struck again. Sometime after dusk Quiñones received a call that a car had struck and killed a bison. She hurried to the scene of the accident on Jolon Road. By the time she’d arrived, CHP had “dispatched” three bison, which had been “darting in and out of traffic lanes.”
“We don’t like to say they’re dead. They’re in the spirit world,” Quiñones says. “Hours after the bison passed, we did a ceremony and asked for help from the ghost bison. They’ve been helping us find the others ever since.”
But the month of May proved to be frustrating and slow. With Ludkiss gone, paid with four buffalo for his services, Quiñones and her family were more or less on their own. They spent their days tracking small herds, responding to rumors and remaining “lawful” in their dealings with the community.
Little by little, the remaining bison were found and isolated, with the help of a bunch of local ranchers. Six were corralled on Stan Clark’s land, then four were seen out on Bill Miller’s place. Quiñones was standing in the Lockwood Market, a lonely outpost that serves as a kind of community center, when she got a call that two bison were running around out on Highway 101 south of King City. By the time she got there, Joe Roth had managed to safely corral one, but the other had disappeared and was eventually found dead near Lake San Antonio.
Bison In Heaven
We’re bumping down a dirt road on Fort Hunter Liggett in the blue truck and Okhuse, whose name means “Water Bear,” is explaining why buffalo are so much better than cattle while he carves at a stick with a knife.
“Cattle eat the whole root of the grass and digest it. Their poop isn’t fertilizer. Buffalo eat just half the root and their poop is sustainable,” he says, carefully pronouncing this last word while the knife jabs at the wood dangerously close to my elbow. It’s an impressively succinct description for a 7-year-old. Apparently, he is getting an education.
After nearly five weeks of living on the side of the road and hunting bison, this family of three looks appropriately feral. Quiñones is a striking, native-looking woman. Somar looks Middle Eastern, in an interesting, road-warrior way, and Okhuse resembles a little wood spirit. Together they have sacrificed the comforts of home to “be present and available.”
“We’ve been sleeping in our car so all the locals and agencies can see us and find us,” Quiñones says. “We want to be able to respond fast.”
Other than the four buffalo that wandered into the back country, the nine bison on Fort Hunter Liggett are the last.
“We waited to deal with these because we figured that they were safe here,” Quiñones says.
Initially, the bison were seen grazing near Mission San Antonio, but detonations and activity from a recent WWII re-enactment on the base chased them south and across the river to the Jackhammer Dropzone. Quiñones and her family were issued permits by Range Control to visit the Dropzone every day in an effort to corral the animals.
Finding them is one thing, coaxing them into a pen is something altogether different, Somar tells me.
“They adapt to strategies, like flanking them on horse or by foot. You try one strategy, they comprehend it, communicate it to each other and then counter the strategy,” he says. “It’s amazing how intelligent they are. You look them in the eye you see right off these aren’t cows. There is so much more there.”
Their plan, Quiñones tells me, is to locate the bison, sing to them, offer them barley, hang out for awhile and then leave. I nod, thinking, How have they caught even one of these things?
“We need to acclimate them to our presence,” she says. “They hear the songs, they recognize us, we come to signify food. They relax. After seven or 10 days of this we set up pens.”
Simple as that, I think. Of course, we still have to find them and we’ve been looking for hours, periodically stopping the truck to scan the fields and brush of the Dropzone. At one point we hike down to the river looking for tracks.
“You can be hiking along through this tall grass and suddenly they just stand up,” Somar says. “They can be invisible in more than one way.”
Somar has had more than one close call with the bison already. When they were trying to corral the 35 at the sheep ranch, the entire herd turned on a dime and charged him.
“The agility and speed they showed,” he says shaking his head, “it was like a one-eighty. Boom! Suddenly they’re coming up the hill at me. So fast, so agile.”
I scan the tall grass around us intently waiting for the beasts to rear up and charge at us like thousand-pound gazelles. They don’t.
It’s late afternoon when we return to the truck and start heading back. Halfway back to the main road a huge herd of tule elk, nearly 100 strong, eases into view.
“Wow! Look at that!” I yell, excited as a 6-year-old.
Leading the herd is the most magnificent buck I have ever seen. Gingerly they make their way across the huge savannah of grass and crown oak.
“Behind them,” Quiñones says.
“There they are,” Somar nods.
As the mass of tule elk trot away from our truck, they pull back like a curtain and reveal the nine bison. It’s as if they’ve magically appeared in the center of the huge field. They look right at home out there, perfectly in place among their surroundings.
As we slowly continue, the skittish tule elk disappear to the far end of the meadow but the bison loll along at a relaxed pace. Eventually we are right beside them. Quiñones kills the engine on the truck and we all climb out.
It’s like a portrait from the Pleistocene. Megafauna has returned to Monterey County. First the condors and now bison. I half expect a giant sloth to lumber onto the scene from stage left.
Mature buffalo cows can weigh about 1,000 pounds and bulls are between 1,500-2,000 pounds. These are adolescents and slightly smaller but are still magnificent to behold.
Quiñones gingerly makes her way out toward the buffalo where they’ve taken shelter from the hot sun under the crown of an oak tree and begins singing a hauntingly beautiful Lakota song. It’s a surreal sight. A woman with a Spanish last name singing a Lakota song to buffalo in Monterey County. But I realize this is a perfect portrait of 21st Century ecology. It’s all so jumbled and misplaced, but somehow it seems to work.
“All this medicine wandering around,” Somar says. “It’s divine intervention that things have worked out as well as they have.”
The Future, Unwritten
More than a month after our first trip out into the Jackhammer Dropzone, 13 of the Chumash Bison Company’s 74 buffalo continue to roam South Monterey County. Regina and her family’s efforts to pen the nine in Fort Hunter-Liggett have been delayed and thwarted by scheduling problems, controlled burns and most recently the wreck of two F-18C Hornet jets.
“You know what?” one South County resident tells me, clearly relishing the idea. “I don’t think they’ll ever get those last buffalo. I think they’re just gonna live out there on the range. Maybe even breed and start some big herd.”
The bulk of the buffalo eventually made it to Ozena Valley. Last week, they were loaded back into a tractor-trailer on Kote Lotah’s land before continuing the drive south to Ventura County, where Regina hopes they will multiply happily and provide plenty of meat and income for the various bands of Chumash and their friends.
Despite its disastrous beginning, the Chumash Bison Company may still have a chance at success. As of June 17, the gift shop at the Chumash Bison Company was open to business and a map to the “California Bison Reserve” was posted on the Ozena Valley Network’s Web site.
Time will tell if this medicine is strong enough to heal the rifts among the principles of the Chumash Bison Company, but one thing is for sure: for the first time in over 100 years, buffalo have returned to Monterey County—if only for a few weird, magical months.