Throughout August, The Texas Tribune will feature 31 ways Texans' lives will change because of new laws that take effect Sept. 1. Check out our story calendar for more.
Texas animal owners can rest assured that their cows, pigs, horses — even rhinos and elephants — are protected under the state's agriculture code if they wander off their property.
But until the most recent legislative session, bison were not safe.
Watch the video below for an animated explanation.
Senate Bill 174, authored by state Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, changes that. The bill adds lost bison to the list of possible “estray livestock” protected by state law, meaning if they break through a fence — as some strong animals are wont to do — whoever finds them must try to locate their owner. If that doesn’t work, local authorities must hold the livestock; they can sell them at a public auction if they remain unclaimed for more than two weeks.
“Bison producers in Texas were pretty well left out when it came to a legal structure for handling stray animals,” said Donnis Baggett, who has a ranch near College Station with more than 50 bison on it. “We’ve got a big chunk of our money tied up in those animals, and we can’t afford for some yahoo to shoot them if they have [happen] to get out.”
Baggett said including bison under state law is even more important as the industry grows, both within Texas and nationwide. The demand for bison meat, considered healthier than beef from cattle because of its lower fat and calorie content, has skyrocketed in the past decade, along with the price.
“It used to be kind of a foodie thing, but it’s more mainstream now," Baggett said. "You can get a bison burger at Fuddruckers, last I heard."
Most Texas bison ranchers have small herds, so losing even a few animals is a big deal. Baggett said a single 1,000-pound bison is worth about $2,300. The drought is also taking its toll, with a shortage of grazing prompting more and more animals to take off in search of food.
Dennis Wilson, the sheriff of Limestone County just east of Waco, testified against the law on behalf of the Sheriffs' Association of Texas. He said hiring cowboys to round up lost or escaped cattle is easy enough; bison are more dangerous to capture. His office would be responsible for holding the bison while trying to locate the owner, he argued, incurring additional risk and expense.
“Have you ever tried to move them from one pen to another pen?" Wilson asked. "They can be aggressive.”
In response to such concerns, the new law adds a provision allowing whoever discovers the lost or escaped bison to “immediately dispose of them by any means ... if a perilous condition exists.”
But bison ranchers counter that the animals are harmless, and only do damage if provoked.
“They don’t run away when you shoot one,” said Patrick Fitzsimons, whose family’s 13,000-acre ranch is home to about 100 bison. “They don’t have natural predators, so they’ll just kind of sit in the field and they don’t react to gunfire.” To capture a bison, he said, “just entice it with some food.”
Fitzsimons, who used to run a popular bison food trailer in San Antonio, said he has lost bison after they got loose and neighbors shot them.
Perhaps the most extreme case happened in King County in 2010, when rancher Wayne Kirk lost 51 buffalo after they broke through his fence and wandered onto a nearby ranch. The neighboring rancher, frustrated by repeat appearances from the bison, shot and killed them. Because state law didn’t protect bison at the time, Kirk had no recourse, and instead had to follow an injunction filed against him promising not to let future animals wander onto his neighbor's property.
“The [new] law would put some very strict limitations on being able to just slaughter these animals,” said Andrew Sher, Kirk's lawyer.
These types of disputes often hit the deep cultural nerve between bison ranchers and traditional Texas cattle ranchers, some of whom worry that the bison are dangerous and unnatural to the Texas landscape.
Wilson said that while he doesn’t support the law, he doesn’t expect it to have much of a direct effect in his jurisdiction. Bison are rare enough that there are just a few owners in Limestone County; if he sees a wandering bison, he said, he knows whom to call.
But he, too, has a red meat bias: “They claim that it’s going to be the meat of the future,” he said with a chuckle. “I personally disagree with that.”