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Cattlemen say bison ranch owner has a lot to learn

SELFRIDGE, N.D. (AP)--Good fences make good neighbors in these parts. It's ranchers' version of the golden rule they say one wealthy Florida businessman needs to learn if he wants to raise bison in cattle country.

Ranchers say bison owned by real estate developer Maurice Wilder have escaped for years from his sprawling property along the North Dakota-South Dakota border, demolishing fences and hay supplies for which they say Wilder owes them thousands of dollars.

"The amount of these claims wouldn't even fill the fuel tank on his jet,'' said neighboring rancher Nick Vollmuth, who filed a claim of about $7,000 against Wilder Ranch for damage done in January.

Hundreds of hungry bison broke loose from Wilder's property then, trampling fences covered with deep, dense snow and feasting on other ranchers' hay supplies. Sioux County state's attorney John Gosbee filed charges last month, including one count of misdemeanor animal neglect and 99 counts of livestock at large. Eight ranchers have submitted damage claims totaling more than $60,000.

"If it was a local causing all these problems, we'd beat the (expletive) out of him,'' said Selfridge rancher Butch Jochim, who, like most of his neighbors, comes from generations of cattlemen.

Wilder, of Clearwater, Fla., said he was unaware of the criminal charges until told of them by The Associated Press three days after they were filed. As for the escapes, Wilder blames hunters for leaving his gates open and says he has trouble finding good help.

"Golly, yes, I want to be a good neighbor,'' Wilder said. "If we cause damage, then we should be paying for it.''

But Wilder, who established the ranch about 15 years ago and has more than 200,000 acres of farm and ranch land in eight states, also knows he's an outsider and believes raising bison in cattle country is a big reason.

"They probably don't like us,'' he said of locals. "When we're buying ground, they like us then.''

Bison are native here and some beside Wilder, including the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, raise them for meat. But they are largely an undomesticated novelty, fenced within rolling prairie and wind-carved buttes.

Outside Selfridge, there are more antelope than people. Someone from the next county over can be labeled an outsider. But Jochim said the area's other out-of-state landowners haven't caused problems.

"His grass is shorter than a golf course,'' Jochim said of Wilder. "You can't blame the buffalo, they're going to go where there's grass.''

Sioux County Sheriff Frank Landeis said he pushed for the criminal charges after Wilder took too long to pay for the havoc wreaked in January. Animal neglect carries up to a year in jail and a $2,000 fine; livestock at large carries up to 30 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.

"If the man would have come forward and paid for damages, I would have left it at that,'' Landeis said.

Ranchers' unwritten rangeland etiquette requires that a fence be fixed and hay replaced--immediately--by the operator whose livestock is to blame.

"My cows have got on my neighbors' land and my neighbors' cows have gotten on my land, stuff happens and we take care of it,'' said Rod Froelich, a Selfridge rancher and state legislator.

Wilder has sent the ranchers' claims to his insurance company and says all will be paid in full.

"I'm sure some of them might not be legitimate but I'm sure some of them are,'' Wilder said. "We will take care of both of them.''

But Landeis and others said settlements do not fix the problem.

"It's going to happen again,'' the sheriff said. "He's got too many buffalo and not enough hired help to handle them.''

Wilder said he fired his ranch boss and recently hired a veteran ranch manager to watch over the operation, which spans some 35,000 acres, most on the South Dakota side.

The ranch has about 3,000 bison, 1,200 cattle and seven employees, Wilder said. The bison are slaughtered in North Dakota, Minnesota and Colorado and sold for meat.

"I don't think we got too many animals,'' he said. "I think we've just had some mismanagement.''

Area ranchers wonder if some of that couldn't be helped by a greater presence from Wilder; they say they've rarely seen him around Selfridge.

"I saw him once getting out of his Learjet, with a big trench coat on and a real nice looking blonde on his arm,'' Jochim said. "He's in the buffalo business all for show. He's not a cattleman.''

Wilder said he grew up on an Illinois farm and has been around livestock his entire life.

"I was feeding cows when I was 5 or 6 years old,'' he said. "I do like ranching.''

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