LOLO – It’s not a bad idea to keep your head on a swivel when walking anywhere near a herd of bison.
There’s a growing number of visitors to Yellowstone National Park who will attest to that.
Closer to Missoula, the owner of Bitterroot Bison has plenty of experience when it comes to the critters that reach upwards of 2,000 pounds of lightning-fast fury.
“They can be a little unpredictable,” said Troy Westre as he finished posing for a photo with the 2,000-pound former bottle baby bull he calls Dozer.
Westre said there are only three in his herd that he would walk up to and pet like Dozer. And one of those might still give him a run for his money if he’s not on his toes.
Anyone who has spent some time around the brawny and powerful beasts knows that you can never been too careful.
That’s probably what’s kept many in the cattle industry from converting their herds over to the animal native to this part of the world.
It’s also why Westre doesn’t worry at all about the current plunge in cattle prices.
When Westre bought his first five bison back in 2000, prices weren’t anything to brag about. Around 2006, the price for bison meat started moving upward and it hasn’t stopped since then.
“I can remember selling a bull for $1.20 a pound,” he said. “Now it’s $2.75 on the hoof. Over the last three years, the prices have really been banging upwards.”
Westre credits media-mogul Ted Turner for creating the demand for bison burger.
“He probably has about 60 percent of the bison market now,” Westre siad. “The National Bison Association has been doing a good job in marketing as well.”
Bison remains a niche market and Westre predicts it will be for a long time to come.
“They butcher about 173,000 cows a day,” he said. “We killed 60,000 bison last year. I think the prices will keep going up because the demand is so high for them right now.”
That demand is being driven by people looking for a healthy alternative to red meat.
Westre knows from experience that’s the case.
Every year, right after the general hunting season comes to a close, his phone lights up with calls from unsuccessful elk hunters hoping to fill their freezer with meat that’s similar in fat content to elk and deer.
Westre raises his bison on a ranch just north of Lolo and on land adjacent to the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge between Florence and Stevensville.
This year he expanded his business with the purchase of a food truck where he sells bison burger, tacos, chili and breakfast burritos at locations around western Montana.
“People always tell me it’s the best burger that they’ve ever had,” he said.
That favorable response has him considering franchising his food truck business with the hope that someday most of his Bitterroot Valley-raised meat would be sold through his own outlets.
Currently, people can sample bison burgers from Westre’s herd at the Lolo Peak Brewery, Broadway Bar and Lochsa Lodge.
The beauty of raising bison is that not much at all has to go to waste.
“You can sell a bison hide for $1,000 and a beetle-bleached skull for $300,” he said. “Those are throwaway items on a cow.”
Westre makes coats, caps and gloves from the hide, soap from the tallow from old calf-less cows, and drinking cups from the horns.
But bison aren’t for everyone.
“You have to always remember that they can really move out,” Westre said. “They can go from zero to 35 mph right out of the chute. You better not be standing in the way when they get moving.”
When they do escape from their pastures, it can be a challenge to get them back where they belong.
“You don’t try to push them,” Westre said. “That doesn’t work at all. We try to pull them along with some feed.”
Last summer, Westre found himself faced with a herd of 20 young bulls that found a hole in the fence on the property south of Florence.
It was late July when the calls started coming in.
The small herd walked across the refuge and swam the river on its way west.
“They went right across Highway 93,” Westre said. “I had cops calling me every day. They would go in people’s horse pasture one way and go out another way.”
He chased them for five days before finally catching up to them just before they ambled onto the Bitterroot National Forest.
Lacking any other options, Westre shot the lead bull.
The rest turned around and headed east. They stopped to rest on a three-mile-long island on the Bitterroot River that had grass up to Westre’s chest.
He decided that he was going to have to shoot them a couple at a time and haul them back across the river with a boat.
The next day — almost as if they’d been warned that their walk-about was about to come to a dramatic finish — the herd showed up at the ranch next to refuge at 5 a.m.
“They had walked in the dark back to the ranch without anyone seeing them,” Westre said, with a smile. “They are pretty amazing animals.”
To learn more about Bitterroot Bison, go to www.bitterrootbison.com