Published Fri, May 23, 2008 12:00 AM
By LIZ MITCHELL
Nine riders on horseback, the Bluffton Police Department, Beaufort County Animal Control, a helicopter belonging to a local construction company and the state Department of Natural Resources tried to capture the bison for nearly 10 hours. Authorities tried tranquilizing the animals before the family and law enforcement decided to euthanize them.
Bluffton Police Chief David McAllister said the six were shot at around 4:20 p.m. behind thePublix site.
A spokesman for the Graves family, David Warren, said farm owner Robert Graves decided to put the bison down when it became apparent that law enforcement and farm workers wouldn't be able to rein them in before dark. The worry was the 300- to 400-pound creatures could create a public safety hazard for several Bluffton neighborhoods.
Calling it a "decision of last resort," Warren said: "Robert (Graves) was very worried that these guys would be running around freaked out, without water and would hurt somebody."
The plan to return the animals home failed because of the nature of the young bison, which Warren said were being raised to train the Graves' horses to herd cattle.
The animals were faster than the horses trying to bring them to heel. To make matters worse, the bison were unfamiliar with horses. As a result, they were further frightened by the sight of the horses.
"The thought at the beginning of the day was to close the (Buckwalter) Parkway and close (U.S.) 278 and herd them all the way back to the farm," McAllister said. "But the problem that we learned is, buffalo don't herd like sheep or cattle.
"Essentially, we just weren't having any luck, and at times, we had even separated the herd."
Hours later, the animals crossed through the woods and onto the four-lane Buckwalter Parkway. Two were in the median, while four wandered into the Woodbridge neighborhood.
After unsuccessfully trying to drive the bison back to the Graves farm, Bluffton police tried tranquilizing the animals.
"We tried to corral them and hit them with a dart gun," McAllister said, even though a veterinarian had warned officers the tactic was unlikely to work because the bison were simply too worked up to be sedated.
By mid-afternoon, a herd of state, county and town employees waited on Buckwalter Parkway near the entrance to Woodbridge while the frightened bison peeked from the woods occasionally.
The upper portion of the parkway was closed to traffic for most of the afternoon, opening just before 5 p.m., but not before disrupting dismissals at the Bluffton public schools complex down the road.
Dianne Franks of Woodbridge said she saw four of the animals in her neighborhood grazing peacefully early Thursday. "The police had built this fence around them, but then all of a sudden these guys on horseback came in and the buffaloes were off so fast it was unbelievable," Franks said.
Roughly 30 employees at Berkeley Place shopping center were stuck while the area was blocked to traffic and customers. A handful of workers sat on the curb waiting for news about the animals. At several points during the day, the bison hoofed it through the cordoned-off parking lot. Shop managers described the day as frustrating, and at least one business shut down at noon.
McAllister said he and other officials were considering asking the Graves family to reimburse the various agencies for time and resources. A Bluffton police spokesman said earlier in the day the family could also be fined for stifling Buckwalter-area businesses.
Workers walked the length of the Graves farm fence twice Thursday without finding a break. Warren said the most likely scenario was that "something spooked them and they could have jumped the fence."
The animals were buried on the Graves farm. Their meat was not suitable for consumption.
Bison are the largest North American land mammals. They can live up to 22 years in the wild and 30 in captivity. Males can weigh as much as 2,000 pounds. While "bison" is the technically correct name for the animal, "buffalo" has become a widely popular synonym through common usage. Sources: Defenders of Wildlife, The American Buffalo in Transition