FARMINGTON — Aztec High School's Army JROTC unit enjoyed a rare experience earlier this month.
Six cadets, along with JROTC officers and chaperones, traveled to Wyoming's Yellowstone National Park to learn about wild bison with a wildlife biologist. From Aug. 1 to 4, the team spent time in the park's Mammoth area with wildlife biologist Rick Wallen, helping with the bison management program.
The cadets spent two days working with Wallen on renovating a capture pen to handle the bison, and they ventured into the park to count and classify the herds.
"I hope they learned about the conservation value of preserving wildlife," Wallen said. "And they learned about ... a program to protect wildlife and (how to) resolve conflicts when wildlife create problems when living with humans on the landscape."
Col. Berris Samples, Aztec JROTC senior Army instructor, has worked with Wallen in the past. He once took a group of students from Lodge Grass High School in Lodge Grass, Mont., to work with the bison.
"It's extraordinary and unprecedented to describe it," Samples said. "It doesn't happen, where visitors of a national park are invited to get right in the middle of a buffalo herd."
Samples said the Aztec JROTC is the only unit in the nation that has worked with Wallen in the bison management program.
"(Samples) had a reputation for bringing strong, self-disciplined folks here," Wallen said. "I had pretty high expectations, and they rose to that level. From that regard, everyone worked out just as I expected."
Cadets spent their first day working on a capture facility for the bison and on the corral and installing plywood to help collect the animals, said Cadet Leroy Lesscher. Cadets installed plywood along the entrance funnel of the bison capture facility and treated the wood. The reduced visibility helps the animals focus as they are moved into the closure, keeping the park workers safe.
"Working with the capture pen, it was similar to our fence project at the Aztec Ruins," Lesscher said. "The bison try to go out anything that looks like an opening."
Lesscher said the second day counting the herds was the most fun.
"We actually got to walk and hike through the hills to get up close to the bison, so we could start counting how many there were," Lesscher said. "It was amazing how close we could get to the bison. They're so big and imposing, yet they are gentle and passive in their herd."
Samples said the group had an opportunity to watch a small male bison attempt to impress a group of females by fighting a larger, older male.
"It's startling to see that first-hand," Samples said. "It's survival of the fittest."
It was a humbling trip for Lesscher, who was impressed that teenagers were able to go out on such a trip and experience the national park.
"It's an amazing feeling to know you're one of a few people getting to do this," he said.