LOLO – Moving in on foot isn’t a good idea, so Troy Westre fires up a John Deere four-wheeler, loads the grass pellets and heads across the snow, cutting the herd of bison as if it were easy.
Along the way, he keeps a watch on the bulls who are watching him and that sack of tasty pellets. These aren’t cattle roaming around, Westre notes. Rather, they’re 2,000-pound animals, fast in spurts and often unpredictable.
“There’ve been times they’ve come at me on a full run,” said Westre, co-owner of Bitterroot Bison Co. near Lolo. “I’ve made it to the gate just in time. I’ve had my close calls for sure.”
So goes the life of a bison rancher, and Westre should know. He’s been ranching bison for 13 years, rolling out hay on cold winter mornings, separating the bulls and running irrigation lines for summer grass.
After back surgery in 2009, Westre merged operations with his surgeon, Christopher Mack, on land Mack owns on the Bitterroot River. They’ve been growing their outfit ever since, keeping an eye on the market and the public’s growing demand for lean, local bison meat.
“We’re seeing the supply-and-demand thing right now,” Westre said. “There’s not enough bison for the demand of the people. They’re getting more health conscious. They want to eat local and they want to know where the animals are grown.”
Westre and the nation’s bison ranchers received unexpected but welcome publicity last Monday. Before a national audience, President Barack Obama dined on hickory-grilled bison with red potato horseradish cake and wild huckleberry reduction sauce as part of his second-term inauguration festivities.
Not a bad deal, Westre said, then laughed while driving to the far side of the frozen pasture, where he ripped open the sack of pellets. One bison turned at the sound, then another. Within minutes, the herd lumbered toward him, the animals tossing their giant heads and kicking up snow.
He urged caution, saying the animals love the pellets and can, as a result, get a little unruly at feeding time. The calves froliced close to their mothers. The bulls postured and defended their space, especially Diesel, a 2,000-pound giant with a black head and hooked horns.
“That’s Dozer over there,” Westre said, pointing out the kinder of the two bulls. “I’ve been around them long enough. I can tell most of these animals without ear tags. They’ve all got a little something that makes them stand out.”
While it’s easy to get attached to the likes of Dozer and Lakota, a cow that ambles at a run next to the John Deere as if she were a trusty ranch dog – never mind she’s all muscle and wiry fur – Westre tries to keep his distance.
He admits a love for animals and recounts the day a windstorm toppled a nearby cottonwood tree with an eagle’s nest fixed in its branches. The tree pinned two eaglets under its weight. Westre spent the day freeing the injured birds before turning them over to a raptor specialist who attempted to mend their broken bones.
But despite Westre’s affinity for his bison, he says he and Mack are running a ranching operation, and ranching is a business based on risks and changing market conditions.
Eight years ago, that market crashed. A bison once valued at $4,000 fell to $800. Now, Westre said, the ranch is harvesting bulls for $3,300 and prices are rising.
“We’re just getting ready to split all these calves off,” Westre said, looking across the herd. “We’ll sell our heifer calves and we’ll take all the bull calves out to Lee Metcalf on the old highway. That’s where all our bulls are. We grow them till they’re 30 months old, and then I go out and harvest them.”
While ranching is ranching, Westre said, running bison is a different business than running cattle. He called bison easier to raise and manage. Cattle are hands-on and require care, he said, while bison fend for themselves, more or less.
Bison calve alone and they do it in May, he said, unlike cattle that calve in February. Westre called it nature’s way and said that aside from a few scuffles between bulls resulting in mild veterinary care, ranching bison is a hands-off operation.
“We don’t vaccinate them; we just deworm them,” he said. “We harvest bulls at 30 months. But if we have a cow that doesn’t have a calf for a couple of years, we’ll take her, too. You’ve got to have a calf within two years or you’re out of here.”
Each animal yields several hundred pounds of meat at harvest. The operation tans the hides and sells them to buyers. They sell bison mittens, hats and coats. They sell bleached skulls, bison pillows and tallow soap.
Some Native Americans ask for the stomachs for tripe and the hearts to make traditional sacks, he said. When the hunting season ends and men return home without an elk, he added, his phone rings off the hook with calls for meat.
“We’re members of the National Bison Association and the Montana Bison Association, so we market our meat through there,” Westre said. “Last year, we did the farmers market in Missoula and that was a good thing. I think we’ll try to do it again, unless we sell too many animals.”
For more information about Bitterroot Bison Co. and where to buy meat, call (406) 531-6047.
Reporter Martin Kidston can be reached at 523-5260, martin.kidston
@missoulian.com or @martinkidston.