Ted Turner owns more than 100,000 acres of pristine land in southwest Montana, complete with lush grassland and forested hills rolling with Douglas firs. There are populations of wolves, black and grizzly bears, deer, elk and pronghorn antelope ranging freely, some crossing from nearby Yellowstone Park. But the real stars of the Flying D Ranch are his thousands of bison, the American beast once hunted to the edge of extinction.
Turner’s bison don’t need much human intervention to thrive. They breed naturally in the early summer, when the grass is at its most nutritious, and they birth their calves in the fields. The bison can withstand temperature fluctuations and snowfall. The animals are vaccinated for common diseases, but routine antibiotics and synthetic growth hormones aren’t used. When one of the animals dies—on the Flying D Ranch, about 2 percent to 3 percent of the herd perishes each year—the carcass is simply left for scavengers.
The enormous, shaggy animals are making a comeback as a chic, healthy and environmentally friendly source of meat. But to those in the industry, the animals are just the final piece in a larger ecological puzzle. “The grass business is the business we’re in,” said Mark Kossler, vice president of ranch operations at Turner Enterprises Inc. Keep the grass growing, the philosophy goes, and the rest of the ecosystem will follow. In other words: If you grow the grass, your bison will thrive.
And the bison business is thriving. The meat is healthier than beef, with more protein and less fat than salmon, and it is also more lucrative for ranchers. Nearly 60 percent of bison marketers reported an increase in demand, and 67 percent said they were planning to expand their businesses, according to a survey in May by the National Bison Association, an industry group.
Perhaps what makes this growth most surprising is that it coincides with challenging prices for bison meat. A pound of ground beef retails for $4.99 per pound at the moment, according to USDA data. Ground bison currently sells for more than twice that price, at $10.99 per pound. The past three years have seen a 25 percent growth in sales in the retail and food service sectors, according to the trade group, bringing in about $350 million in 2016.
The bison industry is a bit uncomfortable with a price climb that has no end in sight. There is general concern that if it continues, consumers will eventually stop buying. Ranchers are still scared by a market crash in the early 2000s. Nobody wants the bison bubble to burst again. “We don’t want to price ourselves out of the market,” Kossler said.
Bison keeps flying off store shelves—and not just at farmer’s markets and Whole Foods Market Inc. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Costco Wholesale Corp. are also sellers, and many ranchers offer direct sales online. In 2016, General Mills Inc. acquired EPIC Provisions, whose Bison Bacon Cranberry Bar, made with 100 percent grass-fed bison, is its bestseller. To keep up, bison backers just announced a new commitment for bison herd restoration: One million bison in North America by 2027, more than doubling the current estimated 391,000.
For now, at least, nature is taking care of bison and the people who raise it, including those in the more than 60 Native American tribes across 19 states working with the NBA. But the bison industry, unlike some of its peers in meat production, is keenly aware that climate change is a looming threat to the health of the herds.
Most farmers and ranchers speak of climate change in hushed tones, if at all, probably because they’re considered part of the problem (PDF). At the July International Bison Conference in Big Sky, Montana, however, climate change was the central theme.
Conference attendees included babies, 6-year-olds, teenagers, millennials, mid-life career changers and grandparents. (“My grandkids call me ‘Buffalo,’” one attendee said.) Amongst the crowds, there seemed to be a consensus that the climate was changing and the bison industry would need to adapt.
In a giant conference room at the Big Sky Resort, about 600 ranchers assembled to listen to James Hurrell, the director at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, deliver the keynote presentation on the impacts—past, present and future—of a changing climate. An audible gasp was heard in response to a slide about the warmer temperatures expected by the end of the century, and someone in the audience let out a “whoa” in response to predictions of 100-degree-plus days to come.
In a different presentation, ecologist Joseph Craine presented research showing that the warming temperatures were reducing the protein in grass, leading to smaller bison. He urged the ranchers to pay close attention to (and share) what their animals are eating as they naturally seek out protein. “Everyone has a story on strange things their bison eat,” he said. That information could help everyone.
“Ag is risky and it’s getting riskier from a climate perspective,” Dannele Peck, director of the USDA’s Northern Plains Climate Hub told conference attendees. The agency is working to gather information from, and distribute information to, farmers and ranchers about short-term extreme weather events, as well as long-term climate-related changes. While the websites’ tools, such as climate projections and soil data, are not specifically built for bison, Peck urged the ranchers to use them. After the presentation, she said she was “really hopeful” that the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service will fare well in the final Trump administration budgets.
For many bison ranchers, the need for a symbiotic relationship with the environment is clear. “This organization is fundamentally different, a conservation organization that works very closely with sustainable farming organizations,” said Tom Barthel, the owner of Snake River Farm in Minnesota. He raises bison, cattle, hogs and, according to his business card, “damn fine horses.” Not only do his bison live well on his ranch, they die well, too. The bison are pasture harvested—slaughtered in the field without ever knowing what hit them. He sells his meat directly, and—because bison cooks a little differently than typical beef—includes cooking instructions with his invoices. “These are the cowboys’ cowboys,” he said of the people that become bison ranchers. They care not just about money, but about their land and animals as well.
But while Craine and Peck both discussed how ranchers can adapt to climate change, a presentation from the Savory Institute made an eyebrow-raising claim: When done right, raising ruminant animals—or those that chew their cud, such as bison, goats, sheep and cattle—can not only improve grasslands but actually mitigate climate change. “Holistic management,” advocated by Zimbabwean ecologist and founder Allan Savory, eschews one-size-fits-all solutions, and instead provides ranchers with a decision-making framework to best care for their particular environments through planned, rotational grazing. Savory’s basic pitch is that by mimicking the natural movements of the ruminants that once roamed the earth, the animals become a necessary part of a cycle that can restore over-grazed land to its natural state, sequestering carbon, regenerating grasslands and thereby slowing climate change and even potentially reversing it.
“We have built six inches of top soil in the last 30 years,” says Mimi Hillenbrand, a Savory evangelist and owner of the 777 Bison Ranch in Hermosa, South Dakota. Biodiversity has also improved: “We have 10 types of dung beetles,” she bragged of the recent results of a yearlong study done on her ranch to assess its health.
Some scientists (PDF) have criticized Savory’s claims for being heavy on exaggeration and over-simplification and short on documented evidence, while other research has supported them. Still, many bison ranchers already use similar methods. Even if the Savory technique does not repair the climate, it does appear to maintain a healthy environment for the animals.
The bison revival is not going to singlehandedly restore the planet, but it is making a difference. In Urbana, Illinois, for instance, Kathleen and David Ruhter built their 68-acre ranch on a reclaimed coal mine. It’s a fitting location for the family. David once worked in a carbon-capturing power plant, and they have three children working in environmental sciences—an environmental toxicologist, a civil engineer and an environmental attorney. “I'm not ready to make some of the drastic changes,” David said of Savory’s techniques, “but I do love the idea of bison bringing the land back to the way it should be.”
For Phil Baird, a member of the Lakota tribe and the Provost at Sinte Gleska University, a tribal university on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation, these techniques aren’t new; they’re simply a reformulation of what his people have been doing for centuries. “As Native people, we didn’t have tools to see the microbiology,” Baird said. “We just knew it was there.”
Whatever the impact of restored bison herds, changing the way food is grown, raised and distributed will be necessary both to adapt to and combat the warming climate. Paying $10.99 per pound for bison burger meat might sound high, but if it’s replacing two pounds of beef, it’s responsible for fewer greenhouse gases.
That high price, however, also keeps it out of reach for most of the planet’s consumers. The solution to climate change? Probably not. But as a red meat that comes without the fat, guilt or environmental damage, it’s right on the money.