A vision for the future of the American Bison

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Story and photos by KYLE RAPKOCH
Special to the Outlook

Don ‘Doc’ Woerner is working on building the American Bison Center to provide education on the national mammal, the North American Bison. Doc is standing next to an exhibit he created from Ernie, a rescued bison that he turned into a learning tool after his death.

Recently, the North American Bison has been getting a lot more attention on a national level. Almost a year ago, the buffalo was officially named the first national mammal of the United States following the passage of the National Bison Legacy Act. That decision has brought quite a bit of attention to the large animal, which has a special significance in Montana.
During the settling of the West in the 19th century, bison were slaughtered nearly to extinction, decimating the massive numbers of these creatures that once roamed the prairies. More than a century later, the largest buffalo herd on public land is in Yellowstone National Park. The population of the herd was estimated at about 5,500 in August 2016. The new designation as our national mammal has helped to draw attention to the bison, but there are a few passionate people who have been driving buffalo conservation efforts for decades.
Don ‘Doc’ Woerner is one of those impassioned individuals who has been involved in bison conservation efforts for many years. After graduating from veterinary school at Colorado State University in 1968, Doc Woerner moved to Billings and got his first job at Billings Veterinary Service. Five years later, Woerner bought some land near Laurel and opened his own practice, Laurel East Animal Hospital, which he still runs today. However, Doc Woerner is working his way towards retirement so that he can focus on his interest in spreading awareness and educating others about the North American Bison.
Doc became interested in the buffalo about 30 years ago, and has since endeavored to help the huge mammal in many ways. He has spent a lot of time recently monitoring the buffalo populations in Yellowstone, where the risk of brucellosis has prevented the transplanting of bison to a quarantine area near Fort Peck. Woerner acknowledges that it is a serious disease, which is why he wants to help find smart and responsible solutions without endangering cattle populations.
“I’m not advocating against the livestock industry at all,” he said, “I just want reasonable solutions to provide better care for these animals than we have been in the ​past.” On top of those efforts, he is focused on spreading awareness and education about the bison, which is why he plans to open the American Bison Center.
Woerner recently purchased some land south of ZooMontana on Shiloh, which he plans to turn into the future American Bison Center. He hopes to include some informational exhibits, though the main purpose of the American Bison Center will be to work with people on conservation efforts as well as efforts to educate others about the animal. Beyond spreading awareness, educating people about the differences between bison and cattle might encourage ranchers to include bison in their operation.
Bison burger has become increasing popular lately as well, and is much more expensive than beef. For ranchers that know how to handle bison and have the appropriate resources, bison ranching could be very lucrative. On top of that, bison ranching could help conservation efforts greatly, so it is important to Doc Woerner to provide information about the animal to ranchers and animal lovers alike. Though there is still work to do for Woerner to get the American Bison Center up and running, he already has a great educational tool that he has been using in the meantime.
Several years ago, a pair of bison escaped from the Montana Large Animal Sanctuary after it closed due to lost funding. The pair of bison proved difficult to corral, and Doc Woerner was called to the scene to tranquilize them. Originally, the bison were going to be transported to Texas, but a drought at the time created concerns, so Woerner took the two buffalo in while they searched for a home for them. Woerner ended up keeping the two majestic beasts, affectionately named Bert and Ernie, until they died. Doc then saw a great opportunity to create life-size anatomical exhibits of the buffalo.
With the help of a taxidermist, the two buffalo were transformed into half-skeletal and half-hide exhibits of the species to show how the skeleton fits into their massive frame.
“I had the idea after I saw a dinosaur exhibit at the Museum of the Rockies,” Woerner said. “I just didn’t want them to go to waste.” Bert ended up going to the Buffalo Bill Museum in Cody, Wyo., while Doc Woerner is keeping Ernie in his Field Museum of the American Buffalo. A trailer houses Ernie and a number of informational displays about the history of bison, creating a mobile museum that Doc has taken all over in his attempts to educate America on their new national mammal. The museum has traveled over 30,000 miles across America and even into Canada, and is probably going to make a trip to Washington, D.C., this fall. Once the American Bison Center opens on South Shiloh, it is likely that Ernie and the museum will have a new permanent home.
Though Doc has many ambitious plans in the works, he says his main goal is to spread awareness so that the bison will have many advocates in the future.
“I have a lot of faith in young people,” he explained, “and I hope to make a difference in this effort that can be carried into the future.”

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