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Alaska students learn life of the herd via the buffalo man

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Posted: Monday, September 5, 2011 11:39 pm

DELTA JUNCTION — A chilly wind rippled the long grass at the Stevens Village Bison Herd farm outside of Delta on Friday. Dozens of kids excitedly marched their way across acres of land, in anticipation of spotting a herd of buffalo.

“There they are,” one kid said, and dozens of small brown dots appeared in the grass, hundreds of yards away and behind a fence.

Head of the herd

The kids were fourth-and fifth-grade students from Tok, Tanacross, Mentasta Village and Tetlin on a field trip funded by a Farm to School grant to learn about the bison herd from the “buffalo man,” Randy Mayo.

Mayo is the first chief of Stevens Village Tribal Council and also takes care of the herd and farm.

Years ago, Stevens Village’s subsistence food supply was running low. People with low incomes could not afford to spend days out at a time looking for moose that might fill their freezers for a season. The tribal council decided they wanted to transplant a food source they could tend to and grow in their area.

When looking for a food source that would be both low in cholesterol and high in protein, Mayo said the Stevens Village residents had to ask themselves, “What will be low-maintenance and can pretty much take care of itself when it gets cold?”

The answer was wood bison, which is an indigenous animal to the area. Unfortunately, it is now an endangered species, and Stevens Village would not have been allowed to hunt them nor transplant them.

Plains bison turned out to be the final answer, and the tribal council purchased land in Delta to keep the herd. There are now about a hundred head of buffalo.

“We didn’t do this to feed everybody all the time,” Mayo said. “We’re always going to be a hunting and gathering people.”

“We don’t own these animals, and we don’t really take care of them,” Mayo explained to the students. “It’s the other way around.”

Checking them out

The students and their chaperones lined up against the fence, watching the bison herd from afar. Several outgoing males jogged closer to the group to get a better look at the spectators.

“They are naturally curious,” said Steve Becker, assistant professor of tribal management at University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Aleutians Campus. He explained many of the bison’s traits to the students.

Kids speculated what the bison might be thinking as they peered across the field, through the fence at the group of people.

“Who are these people?” Blake Sanford, 9, of Tok thought they might wonder.

“Am I going to end up a lunch in 15 minutes?” Kyleigh Salinas, 10, also of Tok guessed.

Soon enough, the buffalo wandered away again, curiosity apparently satisfied.

Contact staff writer Reba Lean at 459-7523    

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