As the white pickup truck enters the enclosure, a few hundred golf ball-size eyes perk up in anticipation. It’s feeding time for the buffalo of the Ozena Valley Ranch, six hours earlier than usual, and they are clearly excited about it. The truck drives deeper into the herd, and soon the vehicle is surrounded by a small army of hungry, woolly behemoths with heads as big as sofas, waiting patiently for a taste of the hay piled up in the back.

Maiwo Agdeppa pulls a Swiss Army knife from the pocket of his stained beige pants, cuts the twine holding the bales together and starts tossing the hay over the side. Then the frenzy begins: 128 shaggy tanks, still damp from four days of rain, digging their snouts into the mud, grunting with satisfaction, some ramming their massive craniums in their brothers’ hulking bodies as they dart around the pen, searching for another mouthful of that sweet, sweet straw.

“They’re kind of like big puppies,” says Agdeppa, sitting on the edge of the truck bed, smoking a cigarette as he watches what for him is a daily event.

It’s an unintentionally ironic comparison: Less than a month ago, more than a third of these “big puppies” were on the verge of becoming dog food. Their owner, Tony Virgilio — the same man who owns the wide plot of land 40 miles north of Ojai on which the buffalo reside — was negotiating to sell the majority of his portion of the herd to a butcher who intended to turn them into canine cuisine.

The deal fell through, but that doesn’t mean the bisons’ future is secure. That’s why Agdeppa, co-founder of the Chumash Bison Company, is scrambling to raise the funds to buy the buffalo himself and transfer them to tribal land in Gaviota in Santa Barbara County. But at a rate of $1 per pound for an animal that can weigh up to a ton, raising the money is no easy task.

“I was told we have a donor who will match us dollar for dollar up to $10,000. That’s great, but there’s like 100 of them,” he says. “How are we going to do this?”

Where the air is clear

As he talks, Agdeppa’s voice bounces off the mountains surrounding the ranch. The air is remarkably still here, at an elevation of about 4,000 feet, and aside from crowing, gobbling and the occasional rumble of a truck hauling gravel out on Highway 33, when Agdeppa is talking, he is all you can hear. His gray-streaked hair is tied back behind his head; a similarly flecked moustache extends to the corners of his mouth. His skin is dark and his clothes are thoroughly faded and worn in, the signs of a man who spends most of his time outdoors.

He lives and works on the ranch, though he is not an employee. In exchange for allowing the Chumash Bison Company to operate its gift shop on the property, Agdeppa helps out by doing such tasks as feeding the largest terrestrial mammals in North America, among other things.

Buffalo are not the only creatures living on the premises. Turkeys, goats, guinea hens and retired fighting cocks Agdeppa has rehabilitated wander the grounds freely. In the stables adjacent to the barn that serves as the Chumash Bison Company gift shop, there is a 4-year-old wild mustang. And there are two dogs: Tatiana, a border collie-pitbull mix who enjoys antagonizing the goats and a furry chow who responds only to Dog (Agdeppa tried naming him Bear, to no avail).

Return of the buffalo

But it is the bison that have their name on the proverbial marquee, and with good reason. A century ago, the American buffalo was as close to extinction as a species can get. For thousands of years the cornerstone of the economy for American Indian tribes along the Great Plains, the animal was hunted into near oblivion by the conquering U.S. government in hopes of driving resistant Indians into submission by killing off their primary food source.

Preservation laws enacted in the early 1900s helped protect what was left of the bison population, but it was not until recent decades that the buffalo has undergone what could be deemed a “comeback.” According to the National Bison Association (NBA), the total number of buffalo in North America today is about 500,000 — considerably less than the estimated 70 million that roamed the continent prior to the arrival of the Europeans, but certainly better than the 1,000 individuals that remained at the turn of the 20th century.

What is spurring the buffalo’s resurgence, in large part, is an increasing consumer demand for their meat. A 1996 study by North Dakota State University concluded that bison meat is highly nutritious, containing less fat and cholesterol than beef, pork and chicken. It has been endorsed by the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Association, and an article in Reader’s Digest recommended it as a top source of iron for women during menstruation.

As a result, the food is growing in popularity — demand expanded by 17 percent in 2005, according to the NBA — giving ranchers a greater financial incentive to continue breeding buffalo. The meat is now available in natural supermarkets such as Whole Foods and at restaurants. Media mogul Ted Turner, who owns almost 10 percent of the entire bison population, serves buffalo burgers and steaks at his Ted’s Montana Grill chain.

Big trouble

Knowing all this, Agdeppa thought capitalizing on the emerging trend would be a perfect way to open another revenue source for his tribe, and to honor the ancestral relationship between his people and the buffalo. The idea, he says, was to buy a herd, raise them at different locations throughout California and eventually start selling the calves.

Less than a year old, the Chumash Bison Company has had a shaky infancy. In March 2006, Agdeppa’s partners, Regina Quiñones and David Saunders, went to South Dakota to pick out the 75 buffalo that would make up the initial herd. While they were being transported to a pasture in Monterey County, their trailer nearly tipped over after the driver got caught on a switchback near the preserve.

“He got stuck in the mud. We told him not to go off the road,” Agdeppa says with a trace of lingering consternation. “He’s, like, panicking and freaking out and is, like, ‘Well, I’ve jumped cattle off this truck before, I might as well just jump these off.’ So he goes in there with a [cattle prod] and starts zapping them, making them jump out. These little guys are 8 and 9 months old. They’re jumping out and running. They’re all panicked. Some were jumping on top of each other.”

The frightened buffalo slammed through the preserve’s fences and tore across the Monterey countryside, through vineyards and farmland and out onto the highways, scattering at any sight of a human being. Eventually, one was shot by a young boy. Agdeppa soon received word that more of the buffalo had congregated around the kid’s grandfather’s sheep ranch. When he arrived at the scene, Agdeppa found the head of the deceased buffalo, and nothing else.

“What I figured out was the buffalo came there because [the dead buffalo] was one of their relatives. The only thing left was the head. The meat, the hide and everything got distributed out to people. They came there to mourn that other [dead] buffalo,” said Agdeppa.

Agdeppa and the other members of the Chumash Bison Company managed to corral 45 of the fugitive buffalo there. But it was also around that time that the group began to dissolve. Out of money, Agdeppa was forced to return to Ventura County before the rest of the herd was captured. (Agdeppa says a Monterey County Weekly article claiming he had simply “washed his hands of the situation” is inaccurate.) Not long afterward, Agdeppa received a fax from Saunders, advising him that he had signed over ownership of the buffaloes to Quiñones and was relieving him of authority in the manner.

Making a deal

A few months later, Quiñones showed up at the Ozena Valley Ranch, hoping to strike a deal with owner Tony Virgilio to keep part of the herd at the facility.

Initially, Virgilio wanted nothing to do with them — he had his own buffalo to worry about. Two years earlier, he inherited a herd from a pair of Los Angeles County deputy sheriffs who agreed to pay him $10 an animal per month to store them at the ranch. After the deputies’ partnership broke up, Virgilio and his wife essentially adopted the buffalo. They managed to sell a few calves, including five to Agdeppa, but overall, Virgilio found them to be more of a burden than a financial boon: It cost too much to feed them; they escape frequently, grazing on neighboring properties and he just didn’t have the time necessary to look after them properly.

So when Quiñones offered to give him 19 more buffalo in return for taking care of another 19 for two years, he balked.

“I didn’t want half the animals,” he says, “but rather than see them go to dog food, I chose to take care of the animals. And when the arrangement is up, she has to find a place to take those 19 animals.”

Today, 104 of the 128 Ozena Valley bison belong to Virgilio. He does not want to get rid of them all. In stead, he wants to cut the herd down to a manageable number, which he says is 40 or 50. At the beginning of January, he told Agdeppa he was going to wait until the current stock of hay ran out, then sell the buffaloes to a butcher who runs his own feed processing company. Virgilio ended up canceling the deal, however, partially because the butcher refused to pay him what he was asking, but also because he held some reservations about seeing them meet such an unsavory fate. As he watches another $4,000 truckload of hay quickly disappear, though, he knows he can’t afford to be that discerning much longer.

“Would I rather see them go to pet and horse people, someone who wants to micromanage a small herd? Yeah, I’d prefer that. But in the same regard, you can go on the Internet and there’s buffalo meat for sale everywhere,” he says. “They are livestock. I don’t want to see them go to dog food, but if that’s what I have to do, that’s what I’ll do.”

Hope for the buffalo

Despite the reprieve, Agdeppa has continued to contact local Native American organizations to drum up support for the establishment of a preserve. Response, however, has been slow in coming.

“I just think it’s ‘out of sight, out of mind,’ ” says Carol Anderson of the Camarillo-based Broken Rope Foundation. She has been sending out mass e-mails for the past month; so far, only Patagonia has shown interest in helping. The group is in the beginning stages of putting together a fundraising event, which she hopes will generate the quick money needed to save the animals before another butcher comes around to make an offer. “The buffalo is a sacred animal that has been honored and revered for eons. It’s a source of food, but you take the food you need, you don’t wholesale slaughter them.”

Ideally, Agdeppa would love the buffalo to stay here in Ventura County, as a source of pride for the area in which he was born and raised. But he would be equally happy to see them in an accessible place like Gaviota, in Santa Barbara County, where the public can observe them, interact with them and, ultimately, learn something from them.

“The Plains Indians had the concept that the buffalo is a gift to the people, and yes, it is. Every aspect of it can be used,” Agdeppa says. “My people, they were arguing with me before, ‘Why are you bringing buffalo into California?’ Well, if you go back 10,000 years, the buffalo were here long before. I’m just facilitating their coming back … They deserve to be back.”