HANALEI >> Four juvenile American bison have arrived at Hanalei Bison Ranch to help shore up the herd, which lost 17 animals last April in flooding that devastated Kauai’s north shore.
Images of drowning bison from the ranch went around the world during the disaster, which overnight turned their roughly 150-acre pasture into a muddy lake.
Andy Friend recalls receiving a heart-sinking call the morning of the flood. He and Stuart Wellington co-own Hanalei Garden Bison Co., which has an agreement with Mowry Trust to manage the ranch’s bison. The ranch, which once had over 300 head, was started in 1981 by the late Bill Mowry.
“The property manager said, ‘We’re flooded and I can’t see any bison,’” Friend said. “When we got to the rim overlooking the pasture, at first we couldn’t see any bison either. We were just sick. We felt so helpless.”
Friend said a few of the bison eventually were spotted swimming in the middle of their former pasture.
“They didn’t have any land to stand on. It was just terrible, heartbreaking, really,” he said. “We couldn’t get to them at first.”
The raging water washed some of the ranch’s fencing away. Then came the calls.
There were reports of 1,000- to 1,800-pound bison on river sandbars, in the ocean and on reefs. Bison were even spotted at a bank and golf course in Princeville, a high-end resort town.
The Kauai bison are surprisingly good swimmers considering they are descendents of Great Plains animals, Friend said. The species is also remarkably resilient, having grown to 500,000-strong from the 1880s when there were less than 1,000 in the wild, he said.
>> Conservation status: Near threatened.
>> Named the official National Mammal of the United States in 2016.
>> Bison are North America’s largest land animals.
>> Mature bulls weigh up to 2,000 pounds and mature cows as much as 1,000 pounds.
>> A typical adult bison is 6 – 6.5 feet tall and 10 – 12.5 feet long.
>> A bison can live up to 20 years in the wild.
>> Bison can run at speeds of about 40 mph.
>> Bison can jump as high as 6 feet.
>> Bison typically roam up to 2 miles a day.
>> Herd members can hear a bull’s bellowing up to 3 miles away.
>> Before their near extinction, 30 to 60 million bison ranged from Canada to northern Mexico and from the Plains to Eastern forests.
>> By about 1890, roughly 1,000 remained, including two dozen in Yellowstone National Park.
>> Today most of the 500,000 or so bison nationwide are raised as livestock on ranches. About 30,000 are managed for conservation.
Source: National Park Service, National Wildlife Federation
Paniolo (Hawaii’s cowboys) and volunteers banded together to rescue Kauai’s threatened bison. Ultimately, more than 70 out of about 90 ranch bison weathered the April storm. Their survival became a symbol of the community’s compassion for all creatures great and small — and a reflection of its resilience.
“Once we knew we still had 70-plus animals we knew that this was just a setback,” Friend said. “We weren’t out of business, although our commercial side will suffer for a while.”
The carcasses of the dead bison were never recovered.
Like the community, the ranch is coming back slowly. Another six bison were lost in August when Hurricane Lane dumped more rain on Kauai. But Friend said the arrival last month of two juvenile bulls and two juvenile heifers from South Dakota has brought hope for the herd’s future.
“They’re really important to our recovery. It’s been a closed herd for 30 years. They’ll bring the genetic vigor that we need,” he said. “Eventually, we’d like to have 100 head. Now, we’re on our way.”