Hunting free-range buffalo was but a dream, until some fugitives escaped.
It was late April near our home in southeastern Minnesota. My girlfriend, Ellie, traversed above me as we made our way along a ridge in search of coveted morel mushrooms—a staple of springtime in “bluff country.” Suddenly, we heard the rumble of something tumbling down the hill. As Ellie yelled at me with alarm, my first thought was that a boulder must have dislodged, and it was closing in on us. It was then that three brown beasts appeared. Buffalo! We only saw them for a few seconds as they crashed through the thick vegetation. The loud stampede of their hooves quickly subsided, fading away into the otherwise tranquil woods.
Origin Of The Beasts
I was shocked and confused. We were hiking in a mixture of state forest land and private property that covers about 12 square miles without any roads. The terrain is filled with steep ridges, or bluffs, and is covered by dense hardwoods. A trail runs through the land that is maintained by the local snowmobile and saddle clubs. Where did these buffalo come from? I wondered. As I sorted through my mind for answers, I considered that there are several buffalo farms in the area, but none close to this spot. The buffalo simply didn’t belong here.
I called the sheriff’s office from my cell phone and reported the sighting. Mystery solved: I was told that eight buffalo had escaped from a farm several miles away just over a week ago. The owners had been searching for their missing—and valuable—stock, but to no avail. I explained to the dispatcher where we had seen the animals, then jokingly mentioned that I had a rifle in the truck and asked if it would be OK to go buffalo hunting. He laughed, declined my request and explained that they were private property.
Ellie and I continued our search for elusive morels for a while longer, then headed to the buying station to sell our find. We told the mushroom buyers about our encounter with the buffalo. I didn’t think they believed us, but when we stopped back the following day to sell more mushrooms, they shared some interesting news: The sheriff’s deputies and the owner of the buffalo had used our report to track the animals down and shoot all three! Admittedly, I was discouraged that I had been denied the chance to partake in the hunt.
Bargain Buffalo Hunt
The next day at work I couldn’t stop thinking about the buffalo. I didn’t know the owner, but now I knew where he lived. After my shift I drove directly to his farm. When I pulled into the driveway he was outside working by the barn. I introduced myself as the mushroom hunter who had reported the whereabouts of his buffalo.
He thanked me and noted his concerns about the potential liability of his wily buffalo terrorizing the countryside. The big beasts could damage local farms or, worse yet, harm people. He explained that rounding the buffalo up would be nearly impossible in the rugged terrain, so shooting them was the only safe option. I knew that was my chance to jump on the hunting opportunity of a lifetime. I told him that the next morning I would be in the area where the remaining buffalo were suspected to be, and asked if he thought I ought to bring a rifle along. Without hesitation, he gave me the green light and told me to shoot all five of the remaining animals if I got the chance. I was going buffalo hunting!
I immediately headed to the property where Ellie and I had seen the buffalo and secured hunting permission from the landowner for the following morning. Next, I called work and reserved a vacation day. It was time to prepare my gear for a buffalo hunt. I gathered my elk/mule deer hunting equipment, tossed it in a backpack and chose a rifle. My hope was to shoot multiple buffalo, so I readied my DPMS LR-308 and two magazines loaded with Remington 150-grain Core-Lokts.
Storm Of Success
Before sunrise I made my way to the same ridgetop where Ellie and I had seen the buffalo 3 days earlier. I patiently waited as the woods were illuminated by the warm spring sun. The main snowmobile/horse trail runs the length of the ridge with lots of other horse trails branching off in different directions. I found numerous tracks and buffalo pies right in the area where I first hit the trail—they were obviously traveling on the horse paths more than the steep, thick woods. I slowly made my way down the trail, constantly scanning my surroundings for any sign of the brown giants. I still-hunted as quietly as I could, and continued farther away from my truck.
I had gone about 2 miles when the buffalo sign faded; at the same time, a storm cloud blew in. The one thing I didn’t pack was a rain suit, and I knew I was about to get wet. I turned around and began to head back to the truck, but it was obvious I wouldn’t make it before the rain hit. I remembered a plywood deer stand that I had come across earlier, and made it back there just as the rain started. I called Ellie and asked her to check the weather forecast. She told me the rain was only expected to last about 15 minutes, and that there was blue sky behind it. I waited it out and managed to stay mostly dry.
After the shower passed the woods came alive. I heard turkeys gobbling and ran into one deer after another as I slipped back toward the area where I had seen the most buffalo sign. Then it happened. There was a bend in the trail and a small rise that I couldn’t see over, and suddenly a buffalo appeared broadside 30 yards away. It saw me as I raised my rifle, but I already had the beast in my scope. I was sure my first shot was perfectly placed, but I followed it up with a few more; I didn’t want the buffalo to escape into a deep ravine. It disappeared over the rise, so I hurried to catch up, expecting to see it running down the trail. Even better: It was broadside, 20 yards away, standing next to another buffalo. The second buffalo turned and started running away. I shot the first one again and it went down for good.
I acquired the second buffalo in my scope, but it was going straight away. I didn’t want to take a shot at that angle, so I just watched it in the scope. At 50 yards it turned to go into the cover of the woods, but I delivered a shot behind its shoulder. It turned back onto the path, took a few steps and then headed for the woods again. The first shot had really slowed it down, but I squeezed the trigger again to seal the deal. Down it went.
With the help of the buffalo owner’s son and a couple of friends, we were able to recover the animals with an ATV and a trailer. I was allowed to keep the heads and capes, and the owner’s wife gave me a box full of buffalo burger packages. It was a hunt I will never forget, and an opportunity that likely won’t come again.
Author’s note: All eight of the escapees were 3-year-old cows, and they were ready to go to market when they got loose. If you’ve done the math, you’re probably wondering about the fate of the remaining three buffalo that I didn’t mention. I later discovered they were shot in a hayfield, several miles northwest of where Ellie and I spotted the original three, the same night I had secured permission for my hunt.