By Kevin Tate/Outdoors Writer
After four days spent on horseback and on foot freezing and struggling in the snowy mountains north of Jackson, Wyo., Kenley Austin stared across a meadow at four massive bull bison, all of which were staring back at him. The hunt of a lifetime had reached its crossroads. It was the last day and the only chance.
Then the buffalo broke and ran.
Once the defining sight of the West, great herds of buffalo made the transit from fact to memory late in the 19th century. Through conservation efforts, the century dividing now from then witnessed their return.
Today they exist, still wild, still free, in several areas of the West. Their numbers are controlled through hunting, ultimately the key management tool in any conservation effort.
Wyoming now grants 22 non-resident buffalo permits per year through a random lottery system. In a crowd of more than 800 applicants for the current season, Austin drew No. 20.
don’t guide the guide
“I’d been out there several times on vacation, and I worked at Yellowstone when I was in college,” Austin, now of Florence, Ala., says. “I felt like this might be something I’d be able to do on my own.”
Austin is a lifelong hunter whose excursions have carried him from Texas to Alaska and, in that time, he’d only been on one guided hunt.
His further research, talking with outfitters and Wyoming residents who’d hunted and who’d tried to do it on their own, found they hadn’t been successful in several tries before hiring an outfitter.
With a limited window to hunt and a single season in which to do it, since hunters are literally only allowed to draw and purchase this tag once in a lifetime, he settled on Tag and Drag Outfitters, owned and operated by Ralph Green, a veteran buffalo hunter and guide.
“Beyond the habits and locations of the animals,” Austin said, “it’s critical to know where you are at all times because the territories open for hunting and those that aren’t are not clearly marked one from another.”
In the shadows of the Teton Mountains, through aspen and pine, along hillsides marked in stone, Austin and the professionals with Tag and Drag Outfitters rode horseback through the season’s first lasting snow, anticipating the migration of animals whose kin once defined the lifestyle of the continent’s first inhabitants. Along the way they saw elk by the thousands, plus bighorn sheep, moose and a wolf.
“The first day we were out it snowed and made for almost white-out conditions,” he said. “The temperatures plummeted to 10 and 20 degrees below zero.”
After having spotted four bulls just before sunset on the third day, they spent the wee hours of the fourth riding through snow and darkness, returning to them.
closing the distance
“We tied the horses up and stalked within 250 yards of them, at which point three broke and ran downhill and one went the opposite direction,” he said. “They were absolutely wild. The three were running downhill and my guide and I were running downhill.”
Heart pounding and lungs heaving, Austin got his chance at a bull that stopped 200 yards away and made it count. The massive critter yielded roughly 400 pounds of meat, certainly a winter’s worth for him, his family and more.
“It was a true hunt, a hard-won trophy,” Austin said. “I’d recommend Wyoming buffalo hunting to anyone. There are no fences and no guarantees. You’re going to have to work for it. I wouldn’t change anything about it.”