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As sale draws near, less stress for refuge buffalo

Low-stress techniques for handling buffalo are being introduced at the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge as staff and volunteers prepare for the 47th annual buffalo sale on Oct. 19.

"Rattle-paddles," a familiar sight at past longhorn and buffalo sales, may go away if the newer methods prove successful.

Here Tuesday to school people on the new way to work native bison was Lee Jones, a wildlife biologist and wildlife disease specialist in the Wildlife Health Office and based out of the Natural Resource Program Center in Fort Collins, Colo.

"This is one of our oldest refuges with one of our oldest herds," she said. "This is an incredibly well-designed facility with a lot of curves and a lot of things that are designed to reduce injury to animals.

"But we also have been taught to move animals and motivate them from behind. That's what we have learned as we were trained in our jobs and the people before us were trained in that way. That works somewhat well, but it's a more challenging experience for the bison.

"They don't like to really be motivated from behind, because we're kind of acting like a wolf or a mountain lion, and it's a bit scary to them.

"So what we have learned, and we are learning  it's the first introduction for these guys and they're doing great  is to start to work with an animal's natural behavior. They prefer to see you move past them. Instead of motivating an animal from behind, we're working more where we're actually moving, and that encourages the animal to move forward on its own.

"Instead of us coercing it or scaring it, we are now using its natural tendency to want to walk past us," she explained.

Every facility is different, so in effect the bison here are teaching their human handlers how to use the refuge corrals better for them, Jones pointed out.

She unfurled a large blue flag and showed people how it can be used to speed animals up or slow them down a little bit.

"If you drop a flag between some animals, it almost acts like swinging a gate, but you don't actually have to swing a heavy gate," she said.

When the flag flutters you can hear if the wind's blowing. If you shake the flag a little, you can make a sound, but it's not such an aggressive stimulus that it scares them.

"The goal is to have the animals continue to think and make decisions on their own, instead of getting scared or panicked," Jones said.

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