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Did thick hides protect bison from fire?

December 27, 2017 GMT

CUSTER STATE PARK — American buffalo are known for their incredibly warm hides – seemingly impenetrable by the cold. The Lewis and Clark journals make several references to the warmth of buffalo robes worn by natives.

And those thick hides may have offered protection from the recent Legion Lake Fire.

The 54,000-acre fire burned more than half the park, much of it grassland and the wintering grounds for the park’s buffalo herd. It started Dec. 11 by a downed power line.

Several buffalo, along with some elk, deer, and a burro were euthanized, but the vast majority survived.

Chad Kremer is the buffalo herd manager at Custer State Park. He also owns a small family-owned herd of buffalo on leased property adjacent to Custer State Park.

“I’ve been involved in prescribed burns in the park over the years, but I’ve never seen a grassfire with that kind of wind behind it,” Kremer said.

Wind speeds of more than 40 mph were recorded during the night of Dec. 12-13 when the fire exploded from 4,000 acres to 35,000 acres.

“I was off to the side of the head of the fire when it hit Lame Johnny Road. It probably didn’t take 10 seconds to move 200 to 300 yards with the winds behind it,” Kremer said. Flames were up to six feet high, he estimated.

A handful of his animals were singed by the flames, but the majority received “moderate to severe burns.” So far, he has euthanized eight buffalo, and the majority of those were blinded by the fire, he said. He may have to destroy others.

The fire was hot enough when it reached his animals, that the plastic ear tags marking the buffalo were melted in some cases. The hind ends of the buffalo were burned from their tails to udders, or in the cases of the bulls, their scrotums. The long guard hairs on their coats were burned off, he said, but he was surprised to see that the tight “under-fleece or coat” was in good condition.

“Buffalo have about seven times more hair follicles per square inch than beef. It’s closer to a wool than hair,” Kremer said. “They still have that short under-fleece on them yet.”

On parts of their bodies that did not have that thick hair, the animals were burned to the skin.

Kremer and his neighbors will have a lot of fence to rebuild as the wooden posts were burned in the fire.

Hay will also be needed by ranchers.

“My lease is 565 acres,” he said. “With the exception of a small prairie dog town, I know there isn’t two acres that isn’t black.”

Kremer said he would need to monitor his herd as well as the park’s herd for any lingering health problems. He said the park has decided to forego a roundup to vaccinate the animals unless it becomes necessary. He said roundups are stressful on the buffalo.

“If it looks like we’re getting some respiratory concerns then we’ll have to make a decision whether we’ll run them into the chutes and give them medication,” he said.

The majority of the park’s bison are in holding pastures and are being fed hay. Up to 150 animals remain in various parts of the park.

People wanting to donate hay to those impacted by the fire should contact Farm Rescue at info@farmrescue.org or (701) 252-2017.

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