The bison herd along Highway 47
is going away for good.
People will no longer be able to say "Turn left just after the buffalo" when giving directions. For another year or so they might be able to say "Turn left after where the buffalo used to be."
But eventually the memory will die out.
It's a strangely communal loss across western Washington County, where an entire generation has grown up with the longtime landmark. "We've had people who purchased meat here tell us they will miss them, but I'm sure there will be more that just drive by," L-Bar-T Bison Ranch owner Tom Epler said last week.
Epler, who started the herd more than 26 years ago, is going through his own feelings of loss.
"I will always have buffalo in the blood," said Epler, who grew up on the 407-acre farm located along B Street near its intersection with Highway 47.
But after decades of managing the bulky brown beasts, he admits: "I'm getting old. I turned 60. I had my third back surgery in the spring and I can't lift boxes (of buffalo meat) anymore."
Epler and his wife, Lori, shut down their bison ranch gift shop Dec. 31, 2016, after turning it into a popular Santa House, a free place to visit Kris Kringle in a one-on-one atmosphere. "We offer a quiet place for special needs children, nights for pets and we are local — no traveling to Washington Square and waiting in line for two hours," said Lori Epler.
Now Tom Epler is starting to sell off his famous livestock, which currently number 14: six calves, six cows, one heifer and one bull. At its peak, the herd may have numbered as many as 20, he said.
From one perspective, it's just one of many changes the property has seen since his grandparents established the farm decades ago.
"When I was growing up, we had a dairy," he said. "I hated cows." There were also row crops, grain and the nursery he now runs.
But for tens of thousands of western Washington County residents, none of the other iterations was as exotic or captivating as these famed creatures so prominent in stories about the settling of the wild West.
Tom and Lori Epler bought their first buffalo as part of their fifth wedding anniversary celebration.
"I saw an ad in the Capital Press for some heifer calves for sale in Grants Pass," Tom remembers.
He and Lori drove down together and decided to go to a theater and watch a movie that night before buying the buffalo calves the next day.
Perhaps it was an omen. The movie was "Dances With Wolves," which features an cinematic buffalo hunt starring 3,500 stampeding buffalo.
After bringing those first two bison back to the farm, Epler slowly increased his herd, "buying one here, one there," he said.
The animals visible from Highway 47 were always only a small part of Epler's buffalo kingdom, with most of them held in Idaho, where he owns a processing plant.
But they were big enough — and unusual enough — to surprise motorists whizzing past.
In the early years, "we actually heard brakes lock up on the highway," Epler said. "People could not believe what they were seeing."
There are good memories. "You always know your first calf," Epler said.
And there are scary memories, such as when a buffalo gored Lori in the leg in 1996.
"Everybody else has gotten smashed hands, smashed fingers," said Tom Epler's son, Tom Jr.
"My brother was assisted over a fence," said Tom Jr., remembering how a charging buffalo used its head to bump his fleeing brother over the top of a fence he was already scrambling to hurdle.
"There's some incredible stories," he said.
Saved all photos
Tom Jr. was six years old when the first buffalo arrived. He and other family members have struggled with the upcoming loss. Tears have been shed, he noted.
"I knew he'd been talking about it for a couple years but it was a shock he finally made the decision," he said.
Particularly difficult is the thought that "the grandkids more than likely will not remember the buffalo," Tom Jr. said, including his own two children, aged 1 and 4, and a sibling's six-year-old.
He saved all the photos and videos from their bison Facebook page before they closed it so "we'll always have proof."
When his dad asked for his opinion on selling off the herd, Tom Jr. said, "I can argue the heritage, the legacy, the feel-good, the fun-to-work-with. And they're cute. But I can't argue the economics of losing money on them."
Tom Jr. has a replacement plan, however: Miniature Zebu.
Zebu cattle are the same as the "Brahman" cattle that originated in India and are recognized by the distinctive hump on their shoulders. Miniature Zebu are their own separate species and rarely grow taller than 3 feet.
Tom Jr.'s twin brother, Rob, happened to see a photo of one on Facebook one day and approached Tom Jr. about raising them.
"He showed me a picture of it and I was hooked," said Tom Jr., who picked up his first four miniature zebu on Sept. 28, 2016. Eight more followed in April.
"I had my first calf on Mother's Day," said Tom Jr., who recently bought four more. They're in a side pasture right now but he just replanted the big pasture along Highway 47 so he can move the miniature zebu over there. Sometime before summer, he's going to fence and cross-fence that area to make five smaller pastures he can rotate his zebu through.
His dad, Tom, is excited about the switch. For those mourning the loss of the buffalo, Tom offers this comfort: "Watch for the zebu. 'Cause they are cute."