Bison ranching has been enjoying a renewed surge in popularity and profitability in recent years, thanks in large part to the expanded consumer market for bison meat. In fact, bison ranchers in Montana, who gathered for a two-day conference in Great Falls this weekend, have noted that prices seem to be reaching record highs.
“It’s growing like crazy right now,” said Aaron Paulson, who manages of 1,400 head of bison at the Snowcrest Ranch and also serves as president of the Montana Bison Association. “The demand is far higher than the supply.”
Once on the brink of species extinction, the American bison population now numbers some 500,000 strong. Some roam wild in protected Montana lands, while others are raised for meat production on large ranch property holdings throughout the West. Paulson estimates that the current market price for a live bull averages over $3.50 per pound.
The resurgence in bison is due in large part to both ranchers who breed and raise them as well as the sportsmen and women who aid in conservation efforts. Between 1937 and 2012, hunters and target shooters have given more than $7.2 billion through excise taxes to the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act efforts, for instance.
Also to thank are the people who eat them. The demand for bison meat in high-end restaurants, burger joints, and jerky manufacturers has caused demand to increase and a new market to spread. However, if you’re looking to buy land in Montana to raise bison, don’t expect the same scale of production as you might with traditional cattle ranch real estate.
“It’s a niche market when you look at it, say, compared to the beef industry, and it will be for a long, long time,” Paulson said.
Even so, big-name ranchers like Ted Turner, the media tycoon who owns 1.9 million acres of large ranch property and cares for more bison than anyone else on the planet, are looking to turn more people on to “America’s original red meat.” Turner’s restaurant chain, Ted’s Montana Grill, serves up his own animals in an undeniably delicious way.
Bison meat is low in fat and high in protein, making it ideal for health-conscious carnivores. Still, it may never surpass beef, said Montana Bison Association secretary Julia Arnold. “We just have bigger animals with a different behavior,” she said, “but in the end, we are all about providing nutritious protein for people to enjoy.”