To save the bison, eat the bison.
Those may seem like contradictory goals, but to Canadian rancher Thomas Olson's way of thinking, it's the only way to go.
The red-haired, 54-year-old faithful Mormon, aka the "Bison Whisperer," is a rancher and father committed to restoring bison to their earlier glory, mainly through marketing a better image of the meat.
He believes bison meat should be prized above beef because it has far less fat than beef with two-thirds the calories. It's nutrient-rich and additive-free.
He began ranching with bison as a way to teach his children the value of hard work, but "we became completely enamored with bison," he said. "This animal really is a noble animal."
Olson and his family want to re-establish the species, restore its habitat and make the bison a poster child for ethical treatment of animals.
"We raise them where they can jump, kick and play. They become big family units and produce extremely healthy food," Olson said as he went on to explain that the Lakota Indians believed God made the man and the buffalo to take care of each other.
When the buffalo comes back in strength, so will the nation, he said. "That lines up with our LDS religion. God never intended us to destroy the Earth. Our job is to replenish the Earth."
Olson insists that bison are content to feed on the wild fescue and that they return more than they consume in natural resources.
Olson, his wife, Carolyn, and their 10 children have been raising bison since 1992 when he bought his first 160-acre ranch in Bragg Creek, Alberta, and started with six animals. They now have five ranches, four of which are in Mormon communities.
A half-million cousins of the original bison are found today in herds managed by the federal government in Canada and in the U.S. as well as the stock of private ranchers.
Olson leaves the bison to do their own thing because he can. They eat pesticide-free grass and have uncompromised immune systems, so he seldom has need of a vet. He uses no antibiotics or hormones, save an occasional de-wormer, and doesn't send them to a feedlot or finish them on grain.
As a herd, the bison graze through three feet of winter snow as easily as in summer. Given the way they roam and graze and split the ground, they cultivate the fescue like a vast army of roving rototillers.
Unlike cattle, bison pause between bites. They eat two-thirds of what a cow consumes, and then run to another stretch of pasture.
Bison vs. beef
Olson High Country Bison is among the most-coveted bison in Alberta, but the competition between bison and cattle producers is just one factor standing in the way of 20 million bison roaming once again in North America.
Ranchers have a number of fears about the bison, including the suspicion that they carry disease dangerous to cattle.
Another barrier is public perception. Producers have no trouble selling tenderloin, ribs and ribeye, cooked to medium rare (and no more). The rest of the animal is harder to move.
Yet, Maddox Ranchhouse in Perry, Utah, has no problem selling the ground sirloin and bison roasts.
It wasn’t the case at first, however. Restaurant manager Irvin Maddox didn’t like the idea until he was convinced by his father to offer it.
“I was actually against it. I told him it would never work," Maddox said, "but I'm on board now. It's a wonderful product."
Maddox said bison offerings on the menu — of which there are more every year — are mainly there because of popular demand.
"We experiment with different things, and people tell us what they like,” he said. “If we take something away, we hear about it.”
Currently, the menu includes chicken-fried bison steak and a number of cuts of bison steak. Ground bison and bison roasts are sold in the refrigerated units in the lobby.
Maddox said the meat is leaner and has a higher protein content than beef.
"We're trying to be leaders," he said. "We want to offer a sustainable product, natural meats that come from local suppliers that we trust."
Most of the bison sold at the restaurant comes from a rancher in Idaho who sometimes contracts with growers like Olson.
“If there's a market for bison raised in a conservationist way, the people will make that market,” Olson said. “And this could happen quickly. We've got millions of acres. That half a million animals could be 2 million, 5 million, 10 million — if we convert what is beef-raising land to bison-raising land. You could see millions of bison roaming the prairie again.”
Those may be huge ifs, but Olson is on a roll. It's as if he can see his Mormon great-grandmother coming over the ridge in belly-high grass all over again.
"I think we as Mormons have a real relationship with bison,” he said. “There's no doubt in my mind that our ancestors valued those giant bison herds.”
Sharon Haddock is a professional writer who lives in American Fork. Follow her blog at http://sharonhaddock.blogspot.com/.