Along with the rest of my company, I was about to start a rifle exercise in July 1996 when the range boss ran up the green flag, putting us on hold. I looked up from fiddling with my M-16, and there they were: about 30 buffalo grazing across our frontage, oblivious to the Marines with machine guns 100 yards away. We stared for a half hour while they had lunch.
Camp Pendleton is a wild place. I was stationed there as an infantry officer in the mid-1990s, and my platoon sergeant, a Somalia veteran with a Dixie flag tattooed on his left arm, used to tell me about the “old Corps,” when he would shoot jackrabbits from his barracks window with a .45. Wildfires and floods afflict the base. Everyone talks about the flood of ’93 when water from the Santa Margarita River washed out the base general s ranch house and the airfield.
I woke up one morning in April of this year dreaming of the buffalo. I'd been out of the Corps for several years.
“Camp Pendleton Game Warden, how may I help you, sir?"
“Hey, this is gonna sound really weird, but I remember back when I was stationed at Pendleton there was this herd of, like, buffalo.”
“Yes, sir, we have some bison up here.”
I later spoke with Bill Berry, the man in charge of everything with four legs on base, and we made an appointment.
I reread Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and The Buffalo by Lee Haines. At San Diego State's library I found a master's thesis on the indigenous mule deer population at Camp Pendleton. It mentioned that the bison on base have no natural predators.
According to Berry, the San Diego Zoo introduced the bison to Camp Pendleton in 1973. The zoo’s contingent of North American Plains Bison (bison bison) had reproduced so successfully that they were running out of room. So they trucked up four bison to Pendleton with the hopes of encouraging their reproduction. The bison have grown to over a hundred and split into three herds, which have the run of the base. They tend to stick to a few choice spots in the windswept high country and rarely cross-paved roads.
Occasionally they do cross into live-firing areas. When they do graze into one of those areas. Marines from the game warden’s office are called in. These Marines disperse the beasts with shotgun blasts into the air. “They kinda know us by now,” one of the game warden Marines tells me. “When they see our truck coming, it’s like, okay, here those guys come again, we’d better get moving.”
There have been a few accidents over the years. In 1991, a pickup slammed into a bison on Basilone Road, deep in the heart of the base. The truck took a beating, but the bison came out okay. Two game wardens came out to look for the injured animal and found her under an oak tree. As they drew near, she took off running. The bison occasionally get tangled up in communication wire left out in the training areas by Marines.
Two of the herds, whose range encompasses nearly all of Camp Pendleton’s northern high country, are mature, healthy, and composed of about 50 females, a handful of older bulls, and a few calves. These herds are typical in size and composition to others that are maintained in Wyoming and Montana. The third and southernmost herd is composed entirely of itinerant bachelor bison (sort of like the Marine Corps). A large herd is typically dominated by only a few of the larger males. The coed hierarchy can only support a few of the more aggressive males, so the surplus males are exiled to a separate herd a few miles away.
Pendleton’s herds are unaffected by brusolosis, a disease that afflicts bison and is transferred through their afterbirth. The spread of this ailment has caused some consternation among cattle ranchers near Yellowstone National Park who are concerned about the disease spreading from the bison herd maintained in the park to their cattle.
I met with Berry in May, and after talking in his office near the airfield for a while, we struck out in a Ford Explorer to look for the middle and largest of the three herds. This particular band generally hung out near a pair of small lakes in the Case Springs area, on the eastern edge of the base at about 2200 feet in elevation. Bison are grazers by nature and like the sweet grass found in the fields fed by the spring.
As we crested the plateau leading up to Case Springs, we were enveloped by an ocean of rippling grass. As we moved across a saddle overlooking the southernmost lake, we spotted a lone dark brown cow halfway up a rise on the left. Quickly scanning the surrounding area, we were rewarded with a view of 60-plus bison resting in the oat grass about 50 yards away. We rolled up close and picked out several bulls as well as six of this year’s calves — brightly colored, almost like golden retrievers — intermixed among the herd. The adults, with their deep chocolate chests and diminutive hindquarters, seemed built for speed and looked like locomotives with fur. Most of the herd was losing their winter coats, which hung off them like tattered black carpets. A few small birds collected on the back of the cow nearest us. A smaller cow crossed the jeep trail a few feet in front of the Explorer. As if on cue, a Cobra attack helicopter buzzed overhead. Our shaggy hosts did not bat an eye.
I asked if we could get out and take some photos, but Berry advised us, and I had read, that bison are a bit skittish, and although they seem lethargic and almost pettable, they are dangerous. Bison can weigh up to 2000 pounds and have been docked at upwards of 40 miles an hour. They are built for straight-line sprinting, rather than bunny-like agility.
I had once before seen a plains buffalo up close in a large animal pen at Texas A&M. I’d stepped within a few feet of the pen, and the great beast banged straight up against the railing. As I backed off, I could hear the bull exhaling in great bursts.
After a few minutes, Berry said, “Now we could probably startle ’em and get ’em to stampede. That’s really something to see.”
“We’d better not."
We remained on for a few precious minutes, taking pictures. They began drifting away from the truck.