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In West Texas, a man named Jackie Doyle Hill has pleaded not guilty to charges of criminal mischief. His alleged offense: shooting 51 buffalo that strayed onto the ranch where he worked. The buffalo came from a hunting ranch next door.
As NPR's Wade Goodwyn reports, the story tests Texas laws about livestock and wild animals, as well as attitudes about good fences and bad neighbors.
WADE GOODWYN: The QB Ranch, owned by a Dallas oilman, is 20,000 acres of windswept West Texas: rolling hills, mesas and canyons. After a series of harsh storms earlier this year, ranch foreman Edmund Cassillas went to check on the buffalo. When he found them, there were quite a few missing. He drove the barbed-wire fence and sure enough, found a place where the bison had gone through.
Mr. EDMUND CASSILLAS (Ranch Foreman): When it rains, it washes out the fence. We call them water gaps.
GOODWYN: So Cassillas called the foreman on the Niblo Ranch, where the buffalo had escaped to. It was a short conversation.
Mr. CASSILLAS: He told me there was no more buffalo on the place, and he hung up.
GOODWYN: Cassillas was worried. This was not the first time the QB buffalo had gotten out. The next day, he talked by phone to the ranch foreman again.
Mr. CASSILLAS: And he says - said: I told you, I took care of them. Well, I said: I just need to know. Did you gather them, you know, pin them up, or you sell him, or what did you do? I just needed to know. And he says: No, I shot them. I said: OK, how many are we talking about? And he straight out said, 51 head. He sounded like he was kind of proud of it, that he'd got it, like, he'd took care of the problem - you know: I shot them.
GOODWYN: Jackie Doyle Hill freely admits he shot the buffalo. They had repeatedly strayed onto his employer's ranch, and he'd had enough.
The killing attracted a brief flurry of local media coverage. KAMC-TV in Lubbock flew a helicopter over the two ranches and shot video of dozens of dead bison, rotting where they'd fallen. But out here in rural West Texas, the buffalo slaughter is about more than just the wanton waste of meat. It's a clash of two powerful Western cultures.
(Soundbite of wind)
GOODWYN: Since the 1880s, the cold wind blowing through the iron bars in the old jailhouse window in Benjamin, Texas, has sounded a lonely tone.
Wyman Meinzer owns the jail. He's turned it into his guest house. He is the official state photographer for Texas, and he's lived in Benjamin all his life.
Mr. WYMAN MEINZER (Official State Photographer, Texas): I was raised here on a ranch, born in 1950. There's an unwritten law. There's an ethic that you just know.
Meinzer says this ethic is about how to be a good citizen to a fellow rancher. He calls it learning how to neighbor.
Three hundred miles northwest of Dallas, this is cattle country writ large. The ranches count their acreage in the tens of thousands, and many have been in the same family since the turn of the last century.
Mr. MEINZER: If you come in this country and you buy land, you can't really expect the ranchers to assimilate to your ways. But these people also are forgiving. They will let something slide once - maybe twice.
GOODWYN: Property rights is a signature idea out here: What you do on your land is your business - unless, of course, what you're doing on your land doesn't stay on your land. And Meinzer says the QB buffalo had gotten out repeatedly.
Mr. MEINZER: The bison are roaming. They have been everywhere. They have been on the highway. They've been on several ranches.
GOODWYN: There is no debate that bison can be very destructive. Believe it or not, they can jump over a standard barbed-wire fence. Or they simply land on top of it and crush it - or put their massive heads down and bull right through it, leaving the posts in their wake.
Meinzer says everyone here has problems with livestock. If you demonstrate your good intentions, you'll get a laugh, a back slap and a beer for your trouble. But if you seem to be taking the ranchers for fools...
Mr. MEINZER: If it continues, they're going to act.
(Soundbite of music)
GOODWYN: At the Ranch Store Package House, Bonanza plays on the color TV all day.
(Soundbite of television program, "Bonanza")
Mr. LORNE GREENE (Actor): (As Ben Cartwright) Come on, let's get home and get those chores done.
GOODWYN: It is no accident that a show like Bonanza is on the tube here. If some think it's a 1960s version of the American West romanticized, the Cartwright family's straight-arrow devotion to hard work and honesty is a style that's still taken seriously here, no matter how corny.
Hanaba Welch owns 500 acres with cows. A freelance reporter, she was the first to cover the bison story for the Abilene paper. Welch says there is a local distrust of millionaires from Dallas and Plano, rooted in unpleasant past experience.
>Ms. HANABA WELCH (Reporter; Rancher): In this part of the world, when you see a big, fancy ranch gate, you think, well, that would be like someone from Plano -buy a ranch out here and fence it, and put exotic animals on it.
GOODWYN: Welch says local opinion about shooting the bison runs the gamut - from they should have picked up the phone and said, come get your buffalo, to if the bison kept getting on my property, I'd have shot them, too.
Ms. WELCH: I think different people do feel different ways. I would say that the general thought would be, shoot one or two, but to shoot 51? That seems excessive.
GOODWYN: Welch is not thrilled about the bison being shot on either side of the fence line. QB Ranch is primarily a hunting property, and even when the buffalo are on the right side of their fence, they're there to be killed.
Hunting buffalo does not require an excess of sport; they do not flee. At the QB Ranch, the privilege will cost you around $3,500 a head. So a herd of buffalo has significant value.
But under Texas law, it's possible it was legal for Jackie Doyle Hill to shoot the buffalo once they were off their owner's property. In Texas, buffalo are classified not as livestock but as indigenous animals. So they enjoy none of the legal protections of livestock.
Although Hill has been charged with criminal mischief, destruction of property, his lawyer, Regan Wynn, will argue in court his client did nothing illegal.
Mr. REGAN WYNN (Attorney): The real question in this case is not so much why did Mr. Hill shoot 51 buffalo? It's why did a landowner bring 200 head of wild animals onto his property and not fence them in correctly?
Mr. WAYNE KIRK (Owner, QB Ranch): I thought buffalo slayings were over in the 1850s. To me, that's a very unstable act, to be able to murder and slaughter that many animals.
GOODWYN: Dallas oilman Wayne Kirk is the owner of the QB Ranch. Before the shooting, the buffalo roamed over the ranch's entire 20,000 acres. Now, they are kept in a small pen, hardly ideal.
The proposition that Jackie Doyle Hill could walk away from killing 51 of his beautiful buffalo is appalling to Kirk. Kirk has political allies in the Texas Republican Party, and he's already reached out to them.
Mr. KIRK: Slaughtering animals, to me, and I think the state feels the same way - as a matter of fact, I know the governor's office does - is a terrible injustice.
GOODWYN: Two hundred years ago, great herds of plains bison massive, majestic animals roamed the endless prairie of West Texas. What happened to those herds stains the national conscience. The bleaching white bones of the 51 animals rotting in the Texas sun are a throwback, a reminder of the carnage a man with a rifle can do.
Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas.
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