Dec 13, 2013

Bison Ranching Creating New Challenges, Changes in Texas

The Wheatsville Food Co-Op in Austin sells ground bison from Pederson's Natural Farms in Hamilton. Bison meat is showing up at a growing number of groceries and restaurants. Photo by Oscar Ricardo Silva

Wheatsville Co-Op in Austin sells ground bison from Pederson’s Natural Farms, located in Hamilton. Photo by Oscar Ricardo Silva.

By Alex Dropkin
For Reporting Texas 

Donnis Baggett’s relationship with bison began about the same time his relationship with his wife did.

After he married Beverly Brown in 2004, Baggett sold his cattle ranch and started raising bison with his bride, whose family owned the Lucky B Bison Ranch in Bryan. At the time, it was a fairly novel hobby. Now, the Lucky B is booming, one of many bison ranches in Texas.

“My wife and I have all the meat business that we really can handle, and then some,” Baggett said.

Bison ranchers in Texas and other states are part of a quickly growing industry. The U.S. Department of Agriculture will conduct its first national study of the U.S. ranched bison industry in 2014. Here in Texas, lawmakers have had to add regulations to deal with the growth, and the bison newcomers have caused some tension in a state dominated by cattle.

The American bison once numbered in the millions but was nearly extinct by 1900. A century of conservation efforts saved the animal, but it wasn’t until people’s appetite for bison meat increased during the 1990s that bison ranching became lucrative. By 2007, when the Agriculture Department did its latest census, there were about 200,000 bison in the United States, about a quarter of them in the Dakotas. Texas had nearly 6,000 head of bison on 618 ranches — a small jump in bison from the census five years earlier, but more than 200 new ranches.

Data from the 2012 census won’t be available until February, but the Texas Bison Association says the number of bison in the state is increasing every year. Baggett is the association’s vice president.

“A lot of people are attracted to it because of the heritage, the fact that the bison were here before mankind ever got here, and that we damn near wiped ’em out,” Baggett said. “They want to be a part of reestablishing a healthy bison population in this country.” (The animals are bison, not buffalo, although the latter term is commonly used.)

According to Baggett, Texas’ bison ranchers are a mix of former cattle ranchers and new landowners. Some modern bison are direct genetic descendants of Texas’ wild bison herds, while others have traces of cattle DNA.

The Texas Bison Association formed in 1994 to “promote and preserve Texas bison through leadership, education and building public awareness for the bison ranching and meat industry.” A major issue the TBA has taken up is the shooting of escaped bison.

In 2010, a King County cattle rancher shot and killed 51 bison that had escaped from a neighboring ranch onto his property. The shooting, which made national news, was the culmination of a feud between the bison rancher and the cattle rancher.

During the last legislative session, Texas lawmakers voted to prevent that from happening again. Under a new law, bison join the list of livestock and other species protected under the Estray Animal Act, which says that certain animals cannot be treated as a nuisance and shot unless they pose immediate danger.

Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, authored Senate Bill 17 in response to the King County incident. It was the second attempt to include bison in Texas’ estray laws.

“For those of us that raise bison commercially, it was sobering to find out that if our animals got out, the laws that applied to stray cattle or horses or sheep or goats or anything else did not apply to bison,” said Baggett, executive vice president of the Texas Press Association and a former newspaper publisher. “That was a disincentive for people to invest in bison and to grow our industry.”

The Texas Association of Sheriffs testified against the bill, which gives sheriffs the responsibility to round up wandering livestock.

“We were kind of wanting it to be under the game laws or any other state agency besides dropping it into sheriffs’ laps,” said Dennis Wilson, sheriff of Limestone County, about 30 miles east of Waco. “This is my 38th or 39th year in law enforcement, and I don’t remember getting calls to go put buffalo in. I got other things to do besides that.”

Despite scattered accounts of conflicts, representatives from both the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association and the Independent Cattlemen’s Association of Texas said their members haven’t mentioned trouble with bison or bison ranchers.

“I’m not anti-buffalo…it’s just that if you’re going to be messing with buffalo, then you need to understand how to handle them, you need to have the proper equipment to handle them and you need to have the right facility to handle them,” Wilson said. “I don’t care what the buffalo people say, it’s not the same as dealing with cattle or horses.”

Before Europeans arrived, an estimated 30 million to 60 million wild bison lived in North America. By 1884, there were less than 500. Texas’ bison population, the last of the great southern plains herd, was almost entirely wiped out.

Bison has appeared on more and more menus over the last two decades and is sold at grocers including H-E-B and Wheatsville Food Co-op stores in Austin. The meat is lower in fat and calories than beef and higher in protein and iron. According to Baggett, bison tenderloin is selling for more than $30 a pound, and ground bison is $10 to $11 a pound in most markets.

“It’s got lots of good stuff and very little of the bad stuff,” Baggett said. “That makes for a really strong niche market, and as a result, with America becoming so health-conscious, at least here in Texas, we have a hard time meeting demand.”

Still, Baggett says, Texas will always be a beef state.

“I don’t think bison is ever going to take the place of beef,” he said. “We don’t want to compete with beef. This is definitely a high-end, niche meat product, and we don’t want to be in the commodity business.”