Henry and Ernie are destined for bull-bison paradise — a nice, big pasture with a harem of 20 to 30 females.

That's what Laurel veterinarian Don Woerner and friends in the animal rescue and commercial bison businesses have in mind for the pair rescued three weeks ago from the failed Montana Large Animal Sanctuary in the western part of the state.

With luck and if all the pieces fall into place, they could be settled into a new ranch home by spring, the vet said Wednesday.

But right now, the two shaggy behemoths are a little suspicious, and who could blame them. They've been underfed for months, chased by cowboys, darted by rescuers, hauled unconscious into trailers and driven across the state in a snowstorm to a complex of small, fortified pens at East Laurel Animal Hospital.

Ernie, who weighs somewhere between 1,800 and 2,000 pounds, is the older and less skittish of the two. But he keeps a wary eye on visitors as he lowers his massive head to munch hay.

Henry, at about 5 years old, is probably three years younger and between 300 and 500 pounds lighter. He's definitely nervous about visitors, quickly positioning himself behind the older bull.

"They don't trust me, but they'll learn," Woerner said. "I've got to be patient."

Their coats are a little shabbier than those of better-fed animals, and both are a little thin, the vet said. But overall they are healthy and free of disease. They could live another 20 years or more.

The bulls were among about 800 animals in need of new homes when the sanctuary closed. ZooMontana had considered adopting Ernie and Henry, but decided it could not afford to add a new exhibit now. The zoo, which receives no public funds, is struggling financially and needs to make sure it can feed the animals it already has, said Dave Pauli, a member of the board of directors and regional director of wildlife response for the Humane Society of the United States.

"It is not a good time to be taking on new animals," he said.

Woerner, a fan of bison and these two in particular, said it's just as well that the zoo placement didn't materialize.

"Frankly, a zoo isn't a very good place for these guys," he said. "Maybe if we get them on a small ranch with about 20 or 30 cows, we could rotate buffalo into the zoo as educational exhibits."

What Woerner and those talking with him about the bison have decided is that they want Ernie and Henry to be herd bulls on a new commercial operation, perhaps south of Billings near Pryor. He has a few places in mind and has people with experience in bison operations considering the idea.

"I see a lot of potential in commercial bison production," he said. "There's a high demand for the meat."

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Also under consideration is a local packing plant specializing in grass-fed beef and lamb, as well as bison. Meat from organically raised local animals would be sold within the state, Woerner said.

The vet, who has worked with large farm animals as well as wild and commercial bison, hopes to add an educational component to the ranch. He envisions a place where people could go to observe bison and learn how they use the land and its resources.

His dream also includes small auxiliary pastures near Pompeys Pillar and Little Bighorn Battlefield where visitors can get a sense of what the landscape looked like before the rush of history eliminated from the plains its most defining feature.

Woerner clearly is fond of the two beasts despite their reticent dispositions. Both were raised on the sanctuary but aren't domestic animals.

"They are wild animals and they are fast," he said. "If I got in with them right now, they'd probably kill me."

Ernie and Henry look harmless enough as they wander into an adjacent pen.

Woerner has been waiting for this moment. He clambers over the fence and shuts a gate behind them.

Immediately the two bison move toward the gate in alarm. Nervously they begin circling the small enclosure, in their distress butting heads and knocking into the fence, testing its strength. They run into a shed and out again, confused and unhappy.

"I think I'll give them a few minutes to calm down," Woerner said wryly.

Then he'll bring hay into the first pen before reopening the gate separating the enclosures.

Feeding time can be a little hazardous, but it hasn't dampened Woerner's enthusiasm.

"We've really learned a lot about how to manage buffalo," he said. "What we really need to learn from buffalo is how they lived for thousands and thousands of years and apply it to our cattle."


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Lorna Thackeray can be reached at 657-1314 or lthackeray@billingsgazette.com