Buffalo roam freely, sort of, in Bovina

Published 7:22 pm Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Images of buffalo roaming freely on the range are deeply set in the annals of Americana, along with cowboys, ranchers and other recognizable symbols of the Old West.

Now, that fixture of the wild, dusty range can be seen in a most unlikely place — Bovina Cut-Off Road.

Eight of the lumbering animals roam a portion of the sprawling, 1,000-acre spread owned by construction company owner Ronnie Lampkin.

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“We’ve had ’em just a few months,” said Lampkin, who walks among the small herd without fear of drawing their ire and risking death, thanks to their upbringing.

“These have been trained running with the horses and riders,” he said of the buffalo he obtained from a ranch in Gainesville, Texas.

Lampkin and his wife, Polly, have been involved in cutting horse competitions for years, and through those years has come an affinity for the large mammals that are more properly known as American Bison. The eight on the Lampkins’ property, two being much older than the others, graze on a part of the property separate from the rest of the hundreds of head of cattle.

Visible from the road, they have attracted their fair share of attention from curious onlookers Lampkin has seen trying to approach them.

“This one old lady got out and was taking these tiny little steps toward them,” Lampkin said. “She walked all the way around to where she felt safe and took out a camera.”

The American Bison is the largest terrestrial mammal in North America and among the largest wild cattle in the world. Including its two subspecies, the Plains Bison and the Wood Bison, the 6-1/2-foot-tall animals are thought to have migrated over the Bering Strait between Alaska and the Siberian region of Russia, where it is also believed they originated.

Bison are normally docile, but have been known to charge and attack humans if provoked. Their running speed has been clocked up to 35 mph.

A staple in the diet and lifestyle of Native Americans of the central United States for generations, bison were hunted nearly to extinction by the late 19th century.

Naturalists began a preservation effort in earnest by the turn of the 20th century, and today the number of American Bison is estimated at 350,000.

Their meat remains a delicacy for its lower fat and cholesterol content compared to beef.

This has led to the crossbreeding of the animals with domestic cattle to create “beefalo,” from which much of the products sold in supermarkets as buffalo meat derives.

The National Bison Association and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have established a program of tracking the animals from birth to consumer using ear tags.

A dinner table, Lampkin said, is a fate none of his prized herd will meet.

“They’ll always be wild animals. They’re just pretty to look at,” Lampkin said, adding he will build a herd and “just see what happens.”

He said bison mature at the age of 3, and have a life expectancy of 18 years to 22 years in the wild and 35 years to 40 years in captivity.