Revival on the refuge

Elk and bison were out en masse during the 20th annual tour that features both species. The event, which marks the kickoff of the elk viewing season, drew a record number of participants last month. Winter is the only time elk leave their isolated wooded hideaway to ?meet? their human admirers.Elk and bison aren?t the only mammals enjoying their experience at Maxwell Wildlife Refuge these days.

More and more humans are roaming around, too.

The refuge?s 20th annual elk and bison tour Jan. 18 and 25 is a case point, according to Betty Schmidt, president of the Friends of Maxwell, who host and organize the event each year.

The event attracted a record turnout.

?Normally what we?ve done is two full trams on the first Saturday?and everybody?s all excited,? Schmidt said. ?The second Saturday, is maybe a tram and a half.

?This year we had to add a 12 o?clock tram (in addition to the 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. runs) and I have 30 people on a waiting list?if not more?for people calling in.?

Sue and Moe Pelletier of Leavenworth were one of the lucky few who made it off the waiting list and into a tram at the Jan. 25 event. They found out about the tour almost by accident as they were driving home from McPherson the previous weekend.

?We came down (U.S. Highway) 56 and saw the signs,? Moe said. ?She said let?s go check it out.?

They turned north at Can?ton and headed the seven miles north along?what else?Bison Road.

?We had no idea what we were going to find here for a wildlife refuge,? Sue said. We had no information if it was a drive-through refuge, of if you only saw (the animals) penned in.?

A statue of an elk stand guard at the Maxwell visitors center?and serves as a photo backdrop for many of the visitors who come through.When they were told they could ride a partially enclosed tram into the midst of the herds, they were sold.

?It was like you can do this elk tour and go out and see them?and the buffalo will come up and knock your tram,? Sue said. ?I was like, ?Are you serious?? We?ve got buffalo in Leavenworth, but we can?t get that close to them. This is awesome.?

When the Pelletiers got the call from Schmidt that a couple of seats on the tram were available, the couple jumped in the car and drove the 200 miles one way with no regrets.

?It?s such a great day to be down here, and it?s such an opportunity,? Sue said. ?It?s spectacular.?

Attracting interest

The sunshine and mild winter temperatures made the day particularly enjoyable for participants.

As the kickoff event for the elk season?the only time of the year the animals leave their secluded wooded habitat?the refuge offered a meal featuring elk chili and elk burgers after each 45-minute tour.

But there?s more than good weather and unique meals fueling the resurgence of visitors at the 2,254-acre refuge, according to Schmidt.

?This has been an overwhelming season for us,? she said. ?It just seems like we?ve gotten a great response from people who have been touring out here.

?The other thing is we?re trying to get the public to understand that we?re volunteers out here on reservations seven days a week, doing tours and being flexible?instead of doing it on a Saturday morning or that type of situation.

?We don?t always feed a meal with it, but we?re doing it for the kickoff promotion,? she added. ?Then, throughout the year, we do other events and we?ll serve bison (meat).?

Tour narrator Scott Sullivan, one of about a dozen Friends of Maxwell volunteers, describes the characteristics and habits of the elk and bison that roam the Maxwell Wildlife Refuge.Admission for the elk and bison tour was by donation because the refuge is not allowed to charge for wild meat. Regular tours featuring the bison herd are $8 per person, $15 total if a bison meal is offered with it.

?That?s not bad for what we serve,? Schmidt said.

Firm commitment

Schmidt, a Canton native, has been a member of the Friends of Max?well for 11-plus years and president for the past six. She understands how easy it is for people to be unaware of the refuge?s virtues?she didn?t step foot on the place until relatively late in life.

?I hate to admit that?but most people do admit it,? she said.

Being a self-professing outdoors and animal lover, Schmidt became involved with the Friends of Maxwell.

?We have about 10 to 12 volunteers and other people waiting in the wings,? she said of the organization that manages and staffs the refuge?s activities.

?We did change the management we had here in April, but everybody wanted to stay,? Schmidt said. ?I?ve never had problems finding staff, calling them up at the last minute and saying we have a suburban tour on Sunday. (They respond,) ?Great, put me down.??

Scott Sullivan, the tour narrator Jan. 25, is one of those committed volunteers.

A nose for history, Sullivan said his mother?s ancestors were Mennonite immigrants who homesteaded near Lehigh.

?Then the girls married cowboys and oil field trash,? he joked.

Sullivan worked for the Defense Department for 37 years before retiring and moving to rural Canton.

?I?ve always studied the West and came out here,? he said. ?This is my retirement job. Everybody who works out here is volunteer. It?s just a job you don?t get tired of.?

Sullivan?s knowledge of the American West, and particularly the bison that roamed the Plains, is extensive?but to a large degree self-discovered.

?It was a lot of concerted study,? he said. ?You have to go back and read some of the old volumes, and then understand that a lot of stuff written in the last 40 years, some of it has a political agenda, some of it has a cultural agenda. You?ve got to kind of weed that out and start digging on your own and look for facts.?

Because of his research, Sullivan sees one of his primary jobs as dispelling myths that have developed over the decades?particularly about the demise of the great bison herds that once roamed the Plains.

?When people ask questions, usually they get one of two pat answers,? he said. ?One, a few thousand guys came out here with single-shot rifles and killed 50 million buffalo in 10 years. The other possibility is disease.

?There?s possibly a little bit of truth in both stories, but we?re not getting the whole story,? he said. ?I?ve been studying bison in the Ameri?can West for 30 years. A bunch of us started crunching the numbers a little bit?and the math doesn?t work.?

Hunters and disease?including bovine diseases brought by Texas cattle during the trail drives?did take a significant toll on the herds, but natural disasters such as prairie fires and tornados did, too. Great numbers of bison drowned crossing rivers when the ice broke beneath them.

?It was so bad in fact that the people going west on the Oregon Trail in the spring would go 40 miles out of their way to get away from the stink on the Missouri River when it jammed tight with buffalo herds,? he said.

?I?ve read reports about tornadoes?people finding windrows of dead bodies five miles long and 10 animals deep.?

The final straw, he said, was the rise of the Industrial Revolution during the 1870s and the discovery that bison hides could be made into belts to run factory machinery.

?All of a sudden the prairie was flooded with flyers offering $3.50 for any buffalo hide in any condition,? he said. ?Buffalo hunting became the state industry of Kansas.?

While the only true ?buffalo? live in Asia, Africa and Australia?not in North America?Sullivan understands that the two names are used almost interchangeably by the public.

?The scientific name for these animals is ?bison bison,??? he clarified. ?If you really want to be technical, it?s ?bison bison bison.? But when I say ?buffalo,? people know exactly what I mean.?

Education emphasis

Telling the truth about bison and elk is a key part of Maxwell Wildlife Refuge, according to Schmidt.

?I feel our narrators do a good job of giving history,? she said. ?One of the missions of the Maxwell family and of the Friends of Maxwell is to promote education.?

In addition to tourists, visits are increasing from school-age and college students, too.

?The neat thing about our animals out here is that the situation here is always changing,? Schmidt said.

?The elk will soon drop their antlers in March and go into the trees. At that time, our bison babies start coming out and people want to come see them. Then we go into our breeding season with our bulls within the herd. Then we go into the rut with the elk. It?s revolving.?

And so are the activities available through Maxwell. From the elk and bison tours, volunteers have organized trail rides, wildflower tours and even photography tours.

Schmidt said people may be surprised to know to what extent the Friends of Max?well will accommodate the wishes of curious people.

?I think word is getting around that you can come out for $8 and learn so much and see so much,? she said.

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