Having heard there was a white bison living right here in Bee County, I too wanted to go on a great expedition — but mine would be south.
With limited directions, this quest began by heading for Papalote.
When I became lost, I was directed not to a white bison but to a brown camel. Like a sailor’s sighting of a dolphin, the sighting of this beast too brought good fortune.
On the same road, there roamed not one but two white bison.
Finding them was one thing, but it didn’t answer the question of “who owned them?”
The gate to the answer was closed — literally. It was locked, and there was no call button.
I left a business card in the mailbox and hoped for the best.
Good fortune shined again.
By the time I got back to the office, the phone on my desk was ringing.
The voice on the other end was Mike Barber, and as ranch manager for Papalote Ranch, he offered an open invitation.
Yes, Lewis and Clark were likely excited when they first saw a mountain goat, but that paled in comparison.
I have a soft spot for animals, so to be able to talk to someone who works with animals for a living made my day.
The day had come, and this time, the impeding gate was open.
I was greeted by Barber and hopped in his truck to head off to the pen that held the buffalo.
The ranch is 2,600 acres and spans both Bee and Refugio counties.
Barber has been on the ranch as the manager for 23 hunting seasons.
He said this is his dream job.
His duties include running the ranch, setting up hunts and anything else related to the ranch.
“I do everything from drive a tractor to plan parties,” he said.
Coming into view was the pen that held the bison.
I was in awe. Among the herd were four white ones.
He said there were also two more white bison that were kept in the front pen and could be seen from the road.
He is trying to breed a herd of all-white bison. His hope is to have 12 white females and one white bull someday.
He said white hair is a recessive gene in breeding, so that by putting a white bull in with white females and brown females that came from white bulls, he is increasing the chances of having a white calf to 75 percent.
A lot of the work is still left up to the animals though.
The ranch uses natural breeding, not artificial insemination, so the white bull has to breed when he is ready with which animal he wants to breed, and then it is a waiting game to find out what color the calf is.
The gestation period for a bison is nine months – the same as a human.
Also like a human, the bulls won’t breed with just any female.
They are picky. The animals have to be close to the same breeding maturity.
Barber said he discovered this through trial and error.
He put a young bull in the front pen with much older females. The older females were dominant, and the bull wouldn’t get too close to them.
He had to move the young bull.
“I put him back here to gain confidence and maturity,” Barber said.
In his current place, he said, the young white bull is more a part of the herd, since the females are closer to his age, and he is more likely to breed. Right now, it is just a waiting game though.
“They claim they (the females) will only have a calf every two years,” Barber said.
But through work with the animals, Barber has discovered that, if he weans them from the mother at six or seven months, the mother will breed again sooner.
Barber called the animals “adaptable” as a species in general and said they will basically eat the native plants available in their 400-acre pasture. While the animals are not picky eaters, their diet is supplemented with some minerals and molasses to ensure they are getting everything they need.
In the next five years, Barber should have his all-white herd.
“The novelty is the main reason they are here,” he said.
The animals also happen to be worth about 10 times what a typical brown bison is worth.
A brown bison can sell for $500 or less, while a white animal can be worth $4,000.
The hope is, once the herd is established, they can be used as a money maker with continued breeding, because everyone needs a white bison, right?
The animals could also be sold for hunting purposes.
White bison are not Barber’s only pet project; the ranch has animals from five different continents and an African pasture dedicated totally to the African wildlife that call the ranch home.
Barber has high hopes of having herds of each of the animals at some point in the future.
While the ranch may seem like a zoo, it is still a hunting ranch and is used regularly for deer, turkey and feral hog hunts by the owner and his friends, family and employees.
The ranch owners live in Dallas and own Andrews Distributing but still make trips to South Texas to hunt and enjoy the wildlife.