Distinctly Montana Magazine

Winter 2011

Distinctly Montana Magazine

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“You don’t really herd bison. You’ve got to lead bison.” “Bison are a kind of trick to handle. A lot of the people who bought buffalo back then might have had a place to put them, but they didn’t buy anything to handle them with. Then, their herds got bigger and bigger.” More critical to the emerging industry, they had no con- sumer market. With the price of stock so high (coming in primarily from Canada), Wells says, “Only the wealthy could afford to buy a $30 buffalo steak.” But once the “bottom dropped out of the breeding end” of the market in the mid 1990s, and prices plummeted, Wells says, “People who never thought before that they could afford bison meat discovered that they liked it. It’s the healthiest meat you could eat, healthier than ostrich or venison.” According to the USDA com- parison chart on his Web site (www. brokenwillowbison.com), bison is “a highly nutrient-dense food...high in iron and low in fat, calories, and cholesterol.” And because their diet is “natural grass and hay” and they aren‘t injected with “drugs or growth hormones,” the meat reduces allergic reactions, the Web site claims. Wells explains, Bison are also “pretty self-sufficient.” Unlike cattle, they can birth on their own, so “you don’t have to be a night calver,” he says. They’re also worked only once a year, in the fall, to check for pregnancy and to vaccinate for brucellosis. Wells says, “You don’t really herd bison. You’ve got to lead bison. Their low-impact on land is another character- istic Wells admires. They don’t muddy up creek bottoms and overgraze the best grass. “They only eat what they need.” He sees these traits as a moneymaker for his neighbors. “So John Wells, in love with bison since 1989. many ranchers right around me have a lot of land that a beef cow won’t utilize,” he says, “where a buffalo would thrive like crazy on it.” A long-term, balanced approach is what Wells would like to see applied to his industry and its market. When no one is “out to make a million bucks quick,” he says, it helps the rancher, the land, and consumers. “I’m more than a producer,” he says. “I want people to eat bison meat. I want people to be able to afford it. I’ve seen the boom-and-bust in the bison world. I don’t want to see it happen again.” Yet, he understands the forces at work. An adult bison can weigh 1,000 pounds and sell for $1.90 a pound on the hoof, or more. So he’s become an advocate for education. And he continues to offer his selection of preservative-free jerky, steaks, and ground buffalo through his Web site and a variety of health and coop food stores around central Montana. Two Feathers Jerky Marketed under the brand Two Feathers—a nickname bestowed by his son, Jason, years ago after observing his father tuck two crow feathers into his hatband—Wells’ jerky comes in four flavors: Original, Jalapeno, Red Pep- per, and Teriyaki. The “special flavor” (so hot they called it Dam Hot, he says) is reserved for the Florida customer who requested it. But anyone can order it. Wells also sells bison skulls, skin, and hides. Each of these objects decorates his home. With several buffalo robes always on hand, one usually adorns the banister, he says. And his family regularly dines on buffalo steaks, tenderloin, rib eye, and ground round cooked low and slow. This, and a thriving relation- ship with the buffalo, makes Wells a happy man. “You can’t slow down,” he says. “The kids say, ‘You’re getting too old,” but I enjoy being with the buf- falo.” So that’s where you’ll find him. You can contact Wells and the Broken Willow Bison Ranch, by calling (406) 547-2240 or emailing info@brokenwillowbison.com. Glenda Wallace admires buffalo and buffalo wranglers and people who cook. She writes and builds Web sites and other communication vehicles near the Clark Fork River of western Montana. 58 DISTINCTLY MONTANA • WINTER 2011

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