Buffaloes return to home on the range

Ranchers see profits in frontier symbol

April 10, 2000|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

GRANVILLE, N.D. -- It started as a lark. Doug Woodall thought his father had lost his wits when he brought five buffaloes to the family cattle ranch near here more than a decade ago.

Now, though, the lark has become a livelihood, even a mission of sorts. Woodall, the 47-year-old owner of Big Sky Ranch, is selling off the last of his cattle so he can concentrate on raising 400 buffaloes.

"This is an addiction for me," Woodall says as he bounces across the open grasslands in a pickup truck to visit his grazing herd. The huge, shaggy beasts raise their heads as he approaches and stampede -- toward the vehicle.

Buffaloes -- or bison, as they are properly called -- are finding a home again on the Great Plains, from which they were driven more than a century ago. This symbol of America's frontier heritage is thundering back as financially squeezed farmers and ranchers try to cash in on the animal's commercial appeal as a source of gourmet meat. Steaks are selling by mail order for as much as $26 a pound.

Hunted to fewer than 500 animals by the late 1800s, there are nearly 350,000 bison throughout North America today.

Their numbers are growing so rapidly that some predict there could be more than a million within the next five to 10 years -- most in private herds like Woodall's.

"It's become more than a fringe thing here," says Dennis Sexhus, president of the North American Bison Cooperative, a nonprofit meatpacking house in Rockford, about 80 miles away. Here in North Dakota, home of more buffalo than any other state, Sexhus says, bison ranching is "supporting a lot of ranchers and families."

But production may be getting ahead of the market -- too few buyers for too much pricey protein. Bison ranchers have even had to seek government help, as cattlemen have been doing for decades. They've also hired a marketing firm to convince Americans how healthful bison meat is -- and tasty, too.

Bison meat is darker red and a little sweeter than beef, say its promoters. It's also leaner -- lower in fat, calories and cholesterol than any other meat, including pork and chicken. With the animals largely fed on grass, the meat is free of the drugs, chemicals or hormones often fed to other livestock.

A tough sell

Here in the heart of buffalo country, the meat is scarce on restaurant menus. Promoters say that's because buffalo hasn't made inroads yet in the hospitality industry, compared with the millions of cattle slaughtered daily for sale worldwide. Skeptics, however, say it's a tough sell because it can be, well, chewy.

"Man, I'd rather eat my boot," says Merle Jost, a cattle rancher from Grassy Butte in the western Badlands portion of the state. "It's terrible."

Bison buffs like Woodall insist the meat can be just as flavorful as beef. But because of its lower fat content, they acknowledge, it does require careful preparation.

"It's drier," Woodall says of ground bison. "You have to cook it another way. If you cook it like a regular hamburger, it gets so damn tough you can pound nails with it."

To prove its edibility, Woodall's wife, Darnell, whips up a pot of ground-bison chili to serve their ranch hands at lunch. All the bowls are emptied.

"When we first got buffalo meat, I didn't want to cook or eat it," Darnell Woodall says. "I expected it to be wild, to taste gamy. But we like it a lot now."

Government purchase

Last year, however, with unsold buffalo burger meat piling up in warehouses throughout the Midwest and West, ranchers prevailed on the federal government to buy 2 million pounds of it, paying $7 million, for an average of $3.50 per pound. The meat, half of which came from the North Dakota cooperative, was distributed free on Indian reservations.

Bison have a special, even spiritual appeal to Native Americans on the Plains who used to hunt them. But even Vic Martin, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, who got some of the government meat, says he mixed it with ground beef to disguise it when making hamburgers for his boys.

"If they know, they might not eat it," Martin says.

The meat purchases by the U.S. Department of Agriculture also sparked controversy in these parts, as cattle ranchers grumbled that Uncle Sam was bailing out wealthy "hobby" farmers such as Ted Turner. Turner, vice chairman of Time Warner Inc. and owner of the Atlanta Braves baseball team, raises 17,000 bison on vast ranches he owns in Montana, Nebraska and New Mexico.

"Do we need to be subsidizing Ted Turner?" asks Jost, 46, a third-generation cattle rancher. "I don't think so."

Bison ranchers bridle at being lumped with Turner, though they acknowledge that as a member of the cooperative, he benefited from the government meat purchase.

"Yeah, there are some rich guys and people who are doing this just to play," says David Lautt, who raises 300 bison on 3,000 acres about 60 miles away. "We are serious producers here."

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