Even within the herd, there will always be rebels that do not fit

Bob Jackson and son Scott Jackson stay in Promise City to demonstrate Bison Family Values

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Bob Jackson’s bison march to the maternal order of the herd, even after the matriarch’s death.

Bob ‘Action’ Jackson’s time is no longer split in two. For six months, he would raise bison in Iowa. The other six months, he chased poachers in Yellowstone. Those days are over. “In federal law enforcement, once you get to the ripe old age of 57, you can no longer legally shoot bad guys,” Jackson explained. “That was 2003 for me.”

In 1976, his family began raising bison on their farm near Fort Dodge. All three of the brothers earned fish and wildlife degrees from Iowa State University.

“Dad allowed us to do it because he thought it’d bring the boys back home,” Jackson said. His older brother went on to become a professor. “It fit my life better to work as a backcountry ranger than as a biologist, even though that’s what I trained in.

“We’re the only ones in the world that manage bison in their extended family groups like how they evolved. It’s all grazeland. A lot of it is native. It’s never been plowed. We’ve got 300-year-old oak trees. We’ve got flying squirrels, otters, bobcats and their young nesting in our woodpiles. We have native hard maple in our forests, something normally not found except in northeastern Iowa. We’ve got 48 farm ponds, which 20-some have different fish in them, including musky, walleye and northern pike.

“We like our lands as they are—we don’t do any row cropping. We’ve got three streams that’ve got sand bottoms, which means you’ve got really clear water. Most streams in Iowa are silted with row crop run off. Of course my streams are dry this year. But most of the time they’re running. It’s nice to have clear streams.

“It fits us more than what it is in northern Iowa, where it used to be more diversified farming, and then all the fences went out, and it went to corn and soybeans. Farming originally was livestock, row crop, hay and pasture. And of course, that all left, and you could plant walnut trees up there and they’d spray a half a mile away, and it would kill all your walnut seedlings. It was a good time to leave.

“You can still see the old stagecoach road going through our land from back in the 1870s. We like the history, the people and the life around here.”

Even if Jackson is far from Yellowstone, raising bison in southcentral Iowa, he is still causing trouble.

“Since he’s retired, he’s come back and in essence said that Yellowstone commits malpractice,” said Jeff Ruch, executive director of PEER, which is celebrating its 25th year. “Because they treat buffalo like cattle. They don’t know how bison operate, and so they haze them with off-road vehicles, helicopters, etc.—they don’t understand the matriarchal society. They can identify the weak female, and they can actually move the herds around.

“And so, we tried to convince Yellowstone to retain them. We called the campaign, ‘Bison Family Values.’ But Yellowstone wanted no part of dealing with Bob again if they didn’t have to.”

Bob Jackson’s son Scott, as a boy in the wilderness, looks far off through a pair of binoculars.

Switchblade

Yellowstone had been a life of following the advice of Jackson’s first Park Law Enforcement Officer: “Use the least enforcement needed to change a behavioral pattern.”

For outfitters and guides that meant catching them twice, according to Jackson:

“But they wore out, their hands got beat up, and then they sold their camp to the next set of poachers. Such was life.”

Being 57 also meant the last year in the mountains for his 20-year-old horse Blondie. Jackson never tried to tame Blondie.

“To do so meant a good chance at death or injury—too many bears and too many poachers.”

Jackson also talked his way into carrying a switchblade.

“Cutting ropes, straps or cinches had to be done fast. Rangers, packers and trail crews got hurt when their stock wrapped rope and guys around trees.”

One time, Jackson saved his horse with that switchblade, cutting it loose from his pack animal.

“It was either death for one or two or all three of us. My pack horse had gone around a big boulder instead of following Blondie on a steep slope. I was following poachers. All the dust coming up as that dust went over, then up with the wind. And all the rock falling with no noise below.

“My riding horse laid flat, stomach to the ground, all four legs spread out. It stopped us. I got around Blondie and then cut, with that switchblade, Chubby, my greatest shot chaser in the valley, loose. He was right on the edge. I asked Chubby to get up, holding his lead rope. But he was too close and I knew it. His hind leg touched nothing but air.

“This Morgan horse fell backwards, a 200-foot freefall off that cliff. I got Blondie up on his feet, found a spot to tie my horse to a rock and went down, and gave Chubby a prayer, shot him, and took a shoe off him. I nailed it on the end of the middle support beam of that Thorofare log barn. I hope it is still there, but unless someone reads the logbook they will never know the story. Just the date in that horseshoe when Chubby died on the Trident.”

On a sunny and snowy day in the Thorofare of Yellowstone National Park, Bob Jackson saddles up.

Tall Grass Bison

“Blondie finally went peacefully to the Happy Hunting Ground. And my son Scott and I raise bison how we saw them live, how they evolved in their extended family social order. Just like elephants.”

The Jacksons watched bison, elk, bighorn sheep, antelope and deer in Yellowstone—day after day while glassing for poachers. A herd wasn’t a herd. It was an extended family. All the elk migrating from Jackson Hole every year split off at different mountain drainages. The same family going to the same valley each Spring.

They believed they could replicate the true nature of elk and bison family dynamics, and father and son took what they learned back home to Promise City. The family operation is called Tall Grass Bison.

“It has been a great experiment. In a way it makes it hard to field slaughter them. I’ve shot hundreds, but the only way I can do it is to give them and their family a prayer.

“Tall Grass Bison also sells live animals. Not individuals, but rather families that spin off from the larger herd. It is exactly how new Indian tribes formed.

“We delegate the same way all indigenous hunter-gatherer peoples divvied out meat.

“The old grandmothers who look after the yearlings are honored by all the herd. One time we had a very old cow die. She is the one who gathered up all the stray calves from the other pasture. When she died, all the herd went to her bones first before grazing that pasture. Just like elephants do. This homage went on for five years. Dry cows, those without calves, are just as important as ones who do calve. Because these dry cows take over a lot of the family support work.”

Professionals and animal behavioral specialists come to his farm to see how it works. He is part of Utah State’s Range Science BEHAVE initiative. There they think not in terms of how to raise bison, but rather, how cattle can be raised with extended families.

And for those who think this ability to live in extended families has been bred out of domestic animals, Jackson points to the herds of Herefords abandoned by ranchers in the 1960s off Alaska in the Aleutian Islands.

“Some islands now have 2,000 cattle prospering under harsh climate conditions, all in extended family social order.

“Every stream here on my land, every ridge, is a land without fences. Every spring is a life of former elk and bison. And that same spring had lots of predators. Humans shooting arrows and grizzlies hunting man.

“I visualize every landform in southern Iowa by visualizing the grizzlies, the elk, and all the other wildlife that used to be here. Then that thought goes to the Indians I knew so well in Yellowstone. The Indians of 6,000 years ago, the same camps I camped in.

“The amount of wildlife here would put the wildlife numbers tourists see in Yellowstone to shame. What is now Iowa had numbers that would make Yellowstone seem like a barren desert.

“The hunters going from those camps on those game trails. I followed them. There was no way not to. It was mesmerizing. To the cliffs where all the arrowheads were launched from above. The atlatl, bows and spears, missing and now broken below those cliffs and game trails.

“The wind, the clouds have life, whether it’s Yellowstone or the hills of southern Iowa. If a poacher violates that life I did as much as I could to correct that abuse.”

Family values

“One brisk winter day here on the farm, while putting out big bales, the whole herd started frisking around, kicking up their hind legs—calves, cows, bulls, old grandmothers—having a great time playing in the snow. Among all this commotion I dropped off a big bale on a hillside. As soon as I cut the plastic off, I turn a bale halfway around with the loader, and then start it rolling down, making a line of hay to the bottom.

“But before I could cut the plastic covering, this big bull, a 2,500-pound animal, bounced up to it. I got out of the way as this bull sunk his horns into this tightly wrapped 1,500-pound bale, and then lifted it up—not just off the ground—but continued on and flung this bale like it was cotton candy over the top of him.

“The bale landed behind the bull without ever touching him. I had to slide the tractor down that hill to haul it back up to go through the normal procedure again.

“The power of these big bulls, whether in Yellowstone or on my farm, is amazing.

“When I patrolled out of one of my cabins, the roaring of those bulls during the August rut at night, with so many close to the cabin, I couldn’t sleep. It is the same on the farm—roaring all over in the dark like African lions.

“Yes, Iowa was the land of elk. The Indians would go west of the Missouri River for most of the bigtime buffalo hunting, and then the Indians living west of the Missouri would make the annual hunting trek, swimming their horses across the River to hunt the elk of what is now Iowa.”

As far as the bison back in Yellowstone go, in 2008, PEER issued a press release:

“‘Yellowstone Park shows no curiosity about why and how Mountain Bison are different,’” Jackson said, noting the park fears the legal consequences of recognizing differences. ‘Yellowstone’s Mountain Bison of Pelican Valley need to be recognized for what they are—a unique herd that is worth saving.’

“Mountain Bison are thought to be the direct descendants of Yellowstone’s prehistoric buffalo. Unlike the Plains Bison, Mountain Bison do not tolerate the presence of humans and stay deep within their forested haunts in the park’s rugged upper elevations.”

In 2008, Jackson issued this warning, which many for political reasons will ignore to the end:

“Unfortunately, the Mountain Bison today are not secure in their sanctuary. In fact, they are in dire danger of losing their existence. There isn’t much time.”