The sight of a herd of buffalo grazing bucolically in a large meadow isn’t something you see every day in Eastern Oregon, but in the early 2000s it was actually a common sight along Interstate 84 in the Blue Mountains near Meacham. A herd of the Western icons could often be seen on the south side of the interstate near the mountain town, owned by Robert Carey of Meacham, who had been raising the buffalo for more than a dozen years in the same locale.
But in 2003, the majestic sight became a nuisance after Carey was cited by officials of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, who decided that the herd had reached proportions that were environmentally unsustainable. Soon after receiving the citation, Carey disappeared and the herd gained its freedom from its usual pasturage, running loose on Tribal and private property.
The herd, including both bulls and cows, existed in an official limbo, since they were not considered wildlife and the Oregon Department of Agriculture had not yet classified them as livestock. The reality of the situation, however, is that buffalo can be dangerous and are capable of massive destruction. A mature bull can weigh more than a ton, and cows tip the scales between 1,200 and 1,500 pounds. Buffalo are also extremely athletic and can outrun a horse, despite their bulk. This, and the difficulty of the terrain in which they were wandering, made it a tricky situation for those who would try to round them up.
Several of the residents surrounding Carey’s property had fences demolished and trees and pastures damaged. And buffalo can exhibit a wide variety of temperaments, from completely wild to extremely docile. Several people had had buffalo turn on them — a dangerous proposition.
Carey’s property was foreclosed upon by the former owner, Darrel Sallee of Hermiston, who took charge of the runaway herd. He arranged for a group of the animals who had returned to their original pasture to be slaughtered, and donated the meat to private individuals and Agape House in Hermiston. But Sallee couldn’t keep the remaining 40 animals because of the citation.
A possible solution was posed, a resolution to be presented to the CTUIR government that would allow the Tribes to take over ownership of the herd and maintain them in the Es-cul-pa Creek Wildlife Unit near Tamastslikt Cultural Institute north of Wildhorse Resort and Casino.