Gate tampering sets Forest Grove buffalo free to wander

Six young bison from a ranch just south of Forest Grove had to be killed Tuesday afternoon after they escaped and wandered through nearby fields.

Owners of the L-Bar-T Bison Ranch said a gate possibly was tampered with at the ranch, setting the young bison free. Ranch staff was unable to round up the bison using trucks, so some of the animals had to be put down for safety reasons.

Tom Epler Sr., owner of the L-Bar-T Bison Ranch, was awakened Nov. 20 at about 5:20 a.m. by a neighbor telling him that some of his animals were on the loose.

Someone apparently had unchained a fence gate and cut a rope that penned in several of the young bison Epler raises on a portion of his property. Six of the animals — three yearling heifers, a yearling bull and two bull calves — were standing just outside their pen, the neighbor told Epler.

Epler, 55, his wife Lori and their son, Tom Jr., hustled to the barn at the confluence of B Street, Highway 47 and Old Highway 47 to check things out. At one point, the bison spooked and took off.

“We watched them run away. We had been fighting them for about 30 to 45 minutes and then they decided to go around all (our) vehicles,” Epler Jr. wrote on the L-Bar-T’s Facebook page. “In one split second, we went from knowing exactly where they were to not being able to find them.

“This was all between 5:30 and 6:30 this morning, so the daylight was not on our side.”

Eventually, however, the animals were spotted a mile and a half northwest of the Epler ranch. After several unsuccessful attempts to round them up, family members put the animals down due to concerns they could injure area residents in the days to come — or sometime in the future.

“My biggest problem was they were headed toward the Coast Range mountains,” Tom Epler Jr. said Tuesday evening. “A couple years down the road, we didn’t want a hunter up there who was looking for elk to meet up with a three-year-old bull.”

They considered using tranquilizers on the animals, Epler Sr. said Monday morning, but quickly dismissed that idea. “If an animal is stressed, a tranquilizer will probably kill them,” he explained. “It’s too much for the heart.”

Found around noon

For much of the day, a decent-sized posse was on the lookout for the errant herd. A Washington County sheriff’s deputy and a Forest Grove police officer were searching for the animals before first light, said Epler Sr. By 10 a.m., a dozen or so family members and friends had joined the search.

It took a good six hours before the herd was finally located around noon, grazing in fields off Ritchey Road near Hines Nursery west of town.

Epler Jr. had “done a random check of the back fields” on the family nursery and spied all five bison “just grazing on the grass out there,” his father said.

A small convoy of trucks headed for the herd in an attempt to round up the bison. But every time one of the trucks would approach, “half of them would go one way, and half of them would run another,” Epler Sr. said.

By 2:30 p.m. it had become obvious to the men, who were exhausted from driving in circles, that they wouldn’t be successful coaxing the beasts back toward the barn. So, they decided to do the only thing they could to ensure the safety of area residents who might have come in contact with the bison if they were allowed to roam free all night.

“We had to shoot them,” said Epler Sr. “It wasn’t how we wanted things to turn out.”

With help from about 15 volunteers, they hauled the bison carcasses back to the ranch and butchered them. The meat will be personally consumed or given away.

New to ranch

As the story unfolded throughout the day, Tom Epler Sr. pointed out that the bison in question were new to his ranch and hadn’t yet adjusted to their surroundings. Several calves born on the ranch this year stayed in the pen when he discovered the gate was wide open.

The older animals “didn’t want to go back in their pen,” he said. He spied them crossing the Carpenter Creek Bridge, heading east toward town, in the early morning hours.

Then, they disappeared.

Epler Sr.’s immediate concerns were threefold: that someone would get hurt trying to approach one of the bison, which each weighed between 300 and 600 pounds; that they might cause a traffic accident; or that one of them would be injured or killed by a car or truck.

That last fear came true around mid-morning Tuesday. “One yearling heifer (a one-year-old female) got hit by a car and broke a leg,” said Epler Sr. “We had to put her down.”

One outcome of the day’s strange events is that the Eplers weren’t able to deliver the young bison to their intended new home Thanksgiving weekend.

The animals, three of which were purchased just last week from Antelope Island State Park in Utah, were worth $8,000 total. Epler Sr. had been scheduled to deliver them to a buyer in Washington Saturday who planned to use them to train cutting horses.

“We let them know it didn’t work out,” he said late Tuesday.

In 21 years raising buffalo in Forest Grove, nothing like this had ever occurred, he added.

Tom Epler Jr. said Wednesday morning he was hoping the county sheriff’s office would investigate the trespassing and gate tampering.

“The person had to come all the way into the barn to find that gate,” he said, noting that the young bison were kept separate from the family’s main herd. “Right now we’re considering a larger fence around the entire property to keep this from happening again.”

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