It’s Groundhog Day for Yellowstone Bison

News broke late last week that a federal judge had ordered U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to reconsider its 2015 decision not to grant endangered species status to the bison herds in Yellowstone National Park.

It’s fitting that I heard this news on Groundhog Day. After all, this story seems to be on a continuous loop…replaying like the movie of that title in one version or another every so often.

Fish & Wildlife received its first petition to declare Yellowstone bison as endangered in 1999. After eight years, the agency completed its “90 Day Review” (seriously) and determined that the petition lacked substantial information to warrant an endangered species listing.

Proponents of listing came back in 2009 with a revised petition; this time requesting that all wild plains bison be listed as endangered. The agency’s 90 Day Review took two years, resulting in another finding, stating, “(w)e conclude that the petition does not present substantial scientific or commercial information to indicate that listing the wild plains bison, or any of four proposed DPSs (Distinct Population Segments), under the Act as threatened or endangered may be warranted at this time.”

Undeterred, the proponents bounced back with yet another petition in 2014 asking again that the Yellowstone herds to be declared endangered. Fish & Wildlife dispatched that petition in 2015, citing insufficient new evidence. That’s the petition that the court has now ordered the agency to revisit.

Much of the news coverage on this issue is based on the petitioners’ assertion that the Yellowstone herd of more than 4,000 is “the largest and one of the last free-roaming, genetically pure groups” of bison in the world.
First of all, bison herds are increasing on public lands, as well as private ranches across North America. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s latest report on bison indicates that approximately 31,000 bison roam within 68 herds managed by government agencies and conservation organizations.

It’s the phrase “genetically pure” that really drives private bison producers crazy.

Genetics are an evolving field of science, with new technology regularly emerging. Geneticists avoid using the term “purity,” because new developments are always arising.

Even based on the current understanding of genetic integrity, Yellowstone bison are not alone in showing the lack of cattle genetic introgression. The bison herd at Wind Cave National Park has been tested and shown to be free of cattle genetic introgressions. Enter “genetically pure bison” into Google, and you’ll quickly come up with listings for six herds within the first twenty links that are referenced.

Don’t get me wrong: The National Bison Association cares about the genetic integrity of bison. But the cattle genetics in bison today are predominantly the remnants of some failed crossbreeding experiments conducted 130 years ago by the ranchers who helped save bison from extinction, and not because producers are now crossing our animals with cattle.
Our Code of Ethics prohibits crossbreeding bison with any other species, and many of our members are actively testing their herds to cull animals that show significant degrees of cattle introgression.

There are many issues facing the National Park Service as it strives to manage its bison herds. Saving the animals from extinction is not one of them.

The Perils Of Becoming A Cog

I’ve been thinking about cogs lately.

There’s a reason.

Cogs are important in many machines. They help make things run smoothly. And, when cogs break, the machine grinds to a stop. Cogs are generally hidden. And, in many cases, they are easily interchangeable. In a sense, they have come to epitomize the faceless, nameless elements in a large machine. After all, the iconic scene in Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times featured cogs to represent the modern industrialized world.

Bison should never be just a cog.

We’ve built our business because our customers appreciate the special qualities of the meat our animals produce: flavorful, healthy, and sustainably raised. Our customers have demonstrated that they are willing to pay a reasonable premium for those qualities.

And, as the popularity of bison meat has grown, more packaged food companies are searching out bison as an ingredient in their products. After all, bison adds a certain cache that distinguishes products from their competitors.

Many of the companies are actively developing partnerships with ranchers and helping to tell the story of how the animals were raised. That’s a good thing.

But packaged food companies—like bison ranchers—must be profitable to succeed. As the management of each company works to build their market share, they closely examine every facet of their product, including the cost of goods…COGs. Every new ingredient added to a product sparks a question around the board table: “How does that impact our COGs?”

Our challenge is to never become just a COG. We’ve worked hard to build the reputation, and to tell the story, of bison as a wholesome, premium product. Packaged food companies are adding bison to their products because of that reputation.

We have to make sure that we never let that reputation tarnish. And, make sure that our partners in the food industry know that bison is not just a cost of goods, but a benefit to the final product.

There’s Strength in the Herd

Bison are herd animals,

So too, I’m beginning to think, are their owners.

Conventional wisdom holds that bison producers are a fiercely independent bunch.  I don’t deny that. Getting into the bison business—particularly in the early days…only a few years back—was the equivalent of venturing into the agricultural wilderness. Being the topic of discussion at the local coffee shop was the least of the hurdles. Extension agents, ag lenders, insurance providers and others looked a little more than askance at anyone putting up fencing and stocking their pastures with buffalo. Outright hostility from some neighbors wasn’t uncommon.

In a sense, it was kind of like being surrounded by predators.

Bison producers, like their animals, learned that survival meant staying together. Just as a lone bison will seek out a herd, producers sought out each other. They developed networks, formed associations, gathered to exchange information, and offered moral support. Working together, they became stronger.

I thought about that a few days ago, as bison producers from across North America gathered in Denver for the annual National Bison Association Winter Conference.  More than 500 ranchers, marketers and enthusiasts came together for three days of information and education. We acknowledge that we are still learning from the animals under our stewardship. But the willingness to share those learnings is evident each time that the herd gathers.

It was encouraging to see that newcomers comprised roughly 20 percent of the participants in the winter conference. Just as encouraging, was to see longtime veterans of our business sharing their experiences…mistakes as well as successes.

Our business has grown and thrived because fiercely independent people recognized early on that there was strength in the herd. Because of their commitment, the herd survived financial disasters, disease threats and misguided public policies.

Being a bison producer is still a bit like being a renegade. But fortunately, the herd is stronger than ever, and equipped to help each new renegade succeed.