By RICHARD COCKLE
ENTERPRISE, Ore. (AP) -- A herd of free-roaming bison graze on a south-facing slope near a craggy granite spine called Cougar Ridge, their shaggy presence a pleasant diversion for some Wallowa County residents, but worrisome to others.
The herd, numbering around 25, spent much of this winter on the northern fringe of the 560-square-mile Eagle Cap Wilderness, Oregon's biggest federal wilderness.
"This is definitely unique," said Jim Matheson, spokesman for the National Bison Association in Westminster, Colo. He believes these may be the only bison in North America that have managed to escape captivity and grow into an independent wild herd.
Their appearance is noteworthy because bison have significant commercial value and this herd is unclaimed, Matheson said. Bison meat commands a $2.41 per pound wholesale price, up almost a dollar in the past year, he said.
Wallowa County's herd is in such a remote place that people stumble upon it only sporadically. A hunting guide encountered about 10 bison on Valentine's Day foraging near a small band of wild horses at about 5,000-feet elevation.
More recently, a logger spotted 13 bison on a mountain road between Wallowa and Elgin not far from Oregon 82 and a forester for R-Y Timber Inc. counted 26 bison on his company's land southwest of Wallowa.
Bison numbered 30 million to 60 million in North America 200 years ago.
Nearly wiped out during the 19th century, only about 500 survived by 1900.
Their population has rebounded to about 450,000 in North America today, including 15,000 in tribal herds and 7,000 in national parks.
Kendrick Moholt, an Enterprise-based independent field biologist, likes the idea of diversity in Oregon's wild country, but thinks wandering bison are cause for concern.
"I think they are dangerous, and the public should know they are there," said Moholt, who photographed the herd in December while elk hunting.
He spent considerable time around bison in Yellowstone National Park in the 1980s and recalls several fatal human-bison encounters. They often involved old, cranky bulls and unwary park visitors, he said. A National Park study tracked 81 instances of bison charging people in Yellowstone between 1978 and 2000.
Wallowa County Sheriff Fred Steen said the herd hasn't become an issue -- other than roaming on and off private property. "I'm not sure who they belong to," he said.
The herd's forebears apparently escaped from a ranch along the Wallowa River about eight years ago and have been producing calves in the wild ever since, nearby landowners say.
The only known conflict so far has involved users of Bear Wallow Campground, a U.S. Forest Service wilderness trailhead popular with horseback riders and hikers. Horse owners sometimes truck in hay, which is like candy to bison.
"You'll get a buffalo or two that'll wander in and clean up the hay, and that upsets them," said biologist Pat Matthews of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife in Enterprise.
No ranchers in the area will lay claim to the errant herd, and the caretaker of a ranch that locals have targeted as the likely source has denied any connection to them.
The same caretaker said he didn't have fences or corrals capable of containing them, said Wallowa County rancher Bob Stangel, owner of 240 bison near Enterprise.
Stangel said he might be interested in buying the wild herd if it were possible to corral the bison and get them loaded in trucks. But they're so wild that's probably not realistic, he said.
Bison are North America's biggest land animal, often tipping the scales at a ton, capable of 35 mph top speeds and able to clear a 6-foot fence, or flatten it.
Before the white settlement era, bison shared eastern Oregon with deer, elk, bears and wolves. Nevertheless, they aren't wildlife under Oregon law. And while their meat is prominent in supermarkets and restaurant menus, they aren't livestock, either.
They are private property and considered domestic animals -- similar to peacocks and llamas, said Rodger Huffman, spokesman for the Oregon Department of Agriculture's Animal Health and Identification Division.
Bison found grazing on private or public lands without grazing rights are trespassing, Huffman said. That makes for a thorny issue in this case because the herd has no owner.
Residents along Bear Creek Road near Wallowa say the herd occasionally descends after a heavy snowfall, paying no more attention to fences than cobwebs and showing up almost magically at dawn in somebody's pasture.
Landowners spotted one old bull that may have been ejected from the herd by a younger alpha male on a solitary walkabout last fall, heading north toward the Oregon-Washington border. He vanished into the mountains and hasn't been seen again.
But mostly, the herd hasn't attracted much attention so far. That's possibly because Wallowa County, roughly the size of Delaware and Rhode Island, has a population of only 7,150.
Another explanation could be people are already preoccupied with two packs of gray wolves, an estimated 60 immigrant moose plus uncounted cougar, bear, bald eagles and Rocky Mountain elk.
"Quite a little zoo, huh?" quipped Moholt, who predicted the bison numbers will grow. "They are successfully calving. They are breeding."
Susan Roberts, a Wallowa County commissioner in Enterprise, doesn't know what, if anything, county government should do.
"Are they game animals? Are they somebody's property?" she asked. "What exactly are they?"
She has decided to take it in stride.
"It's part of hanging out in a frontier county," she said.
Information from: The Oregonian, http://www.oregonlive.com