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Eugene couple makes a home for a herd of buffalo to roam.

Byline: GARRET JAROS The Register-Guard

The biggest bison herd in Western Oregon is in Eugene's own back pasture.

Retired surgeon Don Schroeder and his wife, Carol, run 140 head of bison on their 160-acre spread called Bison-Ten-Yal Ranch along Fir Butte Road, just outside the city's western boundary.

The Schroeders got their start in 1978 with 12 buffalo at their old home just west of Interstate 5, across from where Gateway Mall stands today.

"We had 15 acres and the kids wanted to raise something unusual," Don Schroeder recalled Sunday. "So by a whim, if you will, we said let's do buffalo."

Needing a lot of strong fencing, Schroeder bought the old wooden bleachers from the Lane County Fairgrounds.

But what started as a hobby herd has bloomed into a small, informal business. Because the herd isn't federally inspected, the meat can't be sold in restaurants or grocery stores, but the Schroeders do sell to friends and others via word of mouth.

Advocates tout bison meat as healthier than skinless chicken and an alternative for people with high cholesterol who still want to eat red meat. The Schroeders sell whole bison, steaks and even jerky.

For bison caretaker Paul Wilhelm, a Swiss-born mechanical and electrical engineer, the animals take on far greater significance. A worldwide traveler, Wilhelm fell in love with American Indians' culture - and the plains animal they revere.

The Schroeders invited Wilhelm to help after they noticed him and his wife making repeated trips to their ranch to visit the bison.

"Paul is so respectful and nice he'd come by and never trespass," Schroeder said. Now Wilhelm, who moved to Eugene 4 1/2 years ago, comes by to care for the animals five or six days a week and when the Schroeders are out of town.

"To me, the buffalo are good friends," Wilhelm said Sunday while surveying the herd and cooing to his favorites. "They are open, direct and honest. That's the difference between them and people."

Wilhelm, whose own shaggy head of hair resembles those in his care, said he'd like to see more bison herds established in the United States by educating children about their importance.

The biggest herd in Oregon is the 600 owned privately by Native Americans in Chiloquin, according to Schroeder and Wilhelm. The second largest is the 400 or more owned by a rancher in Enterprise, they said.

Wilhelm said he has spent the past 30 years studying wildlife and their social behaviors. But he's been partial to bison since seeing his first one on a trip to Canada 24 years ago.

"I've been in 50 countries and met lots of animals, but the buffalo feels like my brother, makes me feel at home," he said in his guttural Swiss-German accent. "It's a feeling in your heart."

The animals can live up to 40 years and weigh up to 2,500 pounds. The Schroeders' herd consumes about 125 tons of hay a year, and about 15 to 20 barrels of bread, mostly bagels, every day.

"They could jump the fence anytime," Wilhelm said. "They stay because they like the food."

None has ever jumped onto the neighbors' property, but they have jumped one of the fences separating the Schroeders' four fields. "It happens so fast you don't see it sometimes," Wilhelm said.

Not surprisingly, Wilhelm said he has cultivated a healthy respect for his behemoth friends.

"When a buffalo lifts its tail, that means stay away," he said. If they lower their heads and look at you a certain way, that's real serious, he said.

"And if they start pawing the earth, that means it's almost too late to run."

CAPTION(S):

Apache, the boss of the herd, takes a drink. The 140 animals eat about 125 tons of hay a year and 15 to 20 barrels of bread and bagels a day.
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Title Annotation:Ranch: A hobby has turned into a business off Fir Butte Road.; Animals
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Jan 13, 2003
Words:643
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