GRANVILLE, N.D. -- It started as a lark. Doug Woodall thought his father had lost his wits when he brought five buffaloes to the family cattle ranch near here more than a decade ago.
Now, though, the lark has become a livelihood, even a mission of sorts. Woodall, the 47-year-old owner of Big Sky Ranch, is selling off the last of his cattle so he can concentrate on raising 400 buffaloes.
"This is an addiction for me," Woodall says as he bounces across the open grasslands in a pickup truck to visit his grazing herd. The huge, shaggy beasts raise their heads as he approaches and stampede -- toward the vehicle.
Buffaloes -- or bison, as they are properly called -- are finding a home again on the Great Plains, from which they were driven more than a century ago. This symbol of America's frontier heritage is thundering back as financially squeezed farmers and ranchers try to cash in on the animal's commercial appeal as a source of gourmet meat. Steaks are selling by mail order for as much as $26 a pound.
Hunted to fewer than 500 animals by the late 1800s, there are nearly 350,000 bison throughout North America today.
Their numbers are growing so rapidly that some predict there could be more than a million within the next five to 10 years -- most in private herds like Woodall's.
"It's become more than a fringe thing here," says Dennis Sexhus, president of the North American Bison Cooperative, a nonprofit meatpacking house in Rockford, about 80 miles away. Here in North Dakota, home of more buffalo than any other state, Sexhus says, bison ranching is "supporting a lot of ranchers and families."
But production may be getting ahead of the market -- too few buyers for too much pricey protein. Bison ranchers have even had to seek government help, as cattlemen have been doing for decades. They've also hired a marketing firm to convince Americans how healthful bison meat is -- and tasty, too.
Bison meat is darker red and a little sweeter than beef, say its promoters. It's also leaner -- lower in fat, calories and cholesterol than any other meat, including pork and chicken. With the animals largely fed on grass, the meat is free of the drugs, chemicals or hormones often fed to other livestock.
A tough sell
Here in the heart of buffalo country, the meat is scarce on restaurant menus. Promoters say that's because buffalo hasn't made inroads yet in the hospitality industry, compared with the millions of cattle slaughtered daily for sale worldwide. Skeptics, however, say it's a tough sell because it can be, well, chewy.
"Man, I'd rather eat my boot," says Merle Jost, a cattle rancher from Grassy Butte in the western Badlands portion of the state. "It's terrible."
Bison buffs like Woodall insist the meat can be just as flavorful as beef. But because of its lower fat content, they acknowledge, it does require careful preparation.
"It's drier," Woodall says of ground bison. "You have to cook it another way. If you cook it like a regular hamburger, it gets so damn tough you can pound nails with it."
To prove its edibility, Woodall's wife, Darnell, whips up a pot of ground-bison chili to serve their ranch hands at lunch. All the bowls are emptied.
"When we first got buffalo meat, I didn't want to cook or eat it," Darnell Woodall says. "I expected it to be wild, to taste gamy. But we like it a lot now."
Last year, however, with unsold buffalo burger meat piling up in warehouses throughout the Midwest and West, ranchers prevailed on the federal government to buy 2 million pounds of it, paying $7 million, for an average of $3.50 per pound. The meat, half of which came from the North Dakota cooperative, was distributed free on Indian reservations.
Bison have a special, even spiritual appeal to Native Americans on the Plains who used to hunt them. But even Vic Martin, a member of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, who got some of the government meat, says he mixed it with ground beef to disguise it when making hamburgers for his boys.
"If they know, they might not eat it," Martin says.
The meat purchases by the U.S. Department of Agriculture also sparked controversy in these parts, as cattle ranchers grumbled that Uncle Sam was bailing out wealthy "hobby" farmers such as Ted Turner. Turner, vice chairman of Time Warner Inc. and owner of the Atlanta Braves baseball team, raises 17,000 bison on vast ranches he owns in Montana, Nebraska and New Mexico.
"Do we need to be subsidizing Ted Turner?" asks Jost, 46, a third-generation cattle rancher. "I don't think so."
Bison ranchers bridle at being lumped with Turner, though they acknowledge that as a member of the cooperative, he benefited from the government meat purchase.
"Yeah, there are some rich guys and people who are doing this just to play," says David Lautt, who raises 300 bison on 3,000 acres about 60 miles away. "We are serious producers here."
They also point out that the USDA buys all kinds of meats and fish, including lobster, as part of a program intended to support commodity prices while distributing free food to the needy. The federal government bought 156 million pounds of beef last year for $177.3 million.
"There's some jealousy there," Lautt suggests. The government paid three times as much for the bison meat as it did for the beef.
Problems lie ahead
But the government bison bailout hints at a bigger problem for the fledgling industry. Much of the profit now is from sales of live animals, not from the meat. As more people try to get into the business and existing ranchers increase their herds, bison are being auctioned for prices unheard of in the cattle trade, with a single top prize-winning bull going for more than $100,000.
"I think it's a fad," sniffs cattleman Jost.
He recalls how some farmers tried raising emus, ostrich-like birds that were once touted as a beef substitute. "They were selling emu pairs for $10,000," he recalls, "and now they're not worth anything."
Bison ranchers say they're in it for the long haul. But, hoping to avert an industry-crippling glut, members of the North Dakota-based cooperative have hired a marketing agent to help find new outlets for their product.
Promoting the animal
Meanwhile, they are doing their best to promote buffalo in every way imaginable -- selling not only the meat but also the hides, horns and skulls for lovers of Western apparel and decor.
For those who want the atavistic thrill of pretending to be a 19th-century buffalo "runner," some ranches stage bison hunts -- with shooters paying $2,500 or more for the privilege of dropping bulls. The head and horns mounted are extra.
"We sell everything but the grunt," Woodall says.
Some ranchers also sell the ranch -- or shares in it -- to investors lured by the lofty prices that buffalo meat commands in some gourmet markets.
Alex Haill, a Baltimore architect, owns 60 of 350 bison being raised on a South Dakota ranch. He sells the meat by mail order back East.
"This we got into as a side venture," he says, "but it's turned out to be so much fun, I think it's all we want to do."
Ranchers such as Woodall say bison are easier to raise than cattle -- though with a few concessions to the awesome power of animals that can weigh more than a ton each.
While cattle need shelter and hay to get through the Dakotas' harsh winters, bison can graze in pastures buried under feet of snow. When blizzards hit, Woodall doesn't bother to check on them until the weather's cleared -- even in cow-killer storms.
"It's survival of the fittest," he says. "I didn't get into this business for more work."
Woodall has learned the hard way that bison won't be driven or herded from one pasture to another, as docile cattle are. Bison tend to lower their massive horned heads and charge if pushed too much.
So he bribes them. He feeds them snacks of "cake" -- 3-inch pellets of pressed grain, minerals and a little molasses. The sweet stuff has conditioned the animals to come to him like a pack of hungry cats looking for a saucer of milk.
"They're just big pets," he says, as the wide-eyed animals crowd, huffing loudly, around his pickup. The braver ones sidle up to poke their huge wet noses into the open windows.
Domesticated as they seem, Woodall says they can be temperamental, even dangerous. A bull chased him over a fence recently, apparently jealous that a cow had approached him looking for a handout. A less fortunate neighbor was seriously gored by one of his own bison.
Some ranchers have removed their animals' horns as a safety precaution. Others, Woodall included, are experimenting in breeding their bison to get fatter, more beef-like meat out of them.
Such tinkering worries some, who fear that agribusiness could rob bison of their wild majesty.
But Woodall says that won't happen, because bison are more than a commodity to ranchers like him. They're a link with the past, and a bridge, he hopes, to a more sustainable farming future.
"They're a natural," he says. "They were here before we were. ... There's something about them, a tranquillity -- I don't know. They just grow on you."