By Amanda Eggert EBS Senior Editor
BIG SKY – Jonathan Sepp, owner of Flathead Bison Co. in northwestern Montana, says he’s always known he was going to raise bison one day.
Sepp grew up in a military family and moved 15 times in his first 18 years. During long cross-country drives, his family would often take long rest stops in areas that serve as bison habitat, or did at one time. He says those trips planted the seed for his desire to one day own his own herd.
Sepp was one of 600-plus people who attended the International Bison Conference in and around Big Sky July 4-7. Sepp said he was in good company at the conference, which is held every five years and alternates between the U.S. and Canada.
“I’ve heard that like 80 percent of bison ranchers do not come from an ag background. It’s mostly people who love the animal, like me,” Sepp said, adding that he hopes gathering information from larger producers will help him extend the long-term viability of his Hot Springs, Montana, operation.
Sepp explained that marketing and securing finances to get into the business have been the biggest challenges he’s encountered. “It is notoriously difficult to convince a banker, an investor—whatever individual—that bison is a good idea,” he said.
But Sepp, a former commander of a test parachute program in the United States Air Force, believes in the animal. He saved money and launched Flathead Bison Co. three and a half years ago. He currently runs anywhere from 20 to 100 head of bison on land he owns, as well as land he leases from the Flathead Indian Reservation.
Sepp has had help on the marketing front: His girlfriend Brittany Masters is a marketing ace who’s helped him bring Roam Free Bison Bites, a seasoned jerky product, to consumers. He arrived at Big Sky Resort with an Airstream trailer that was completely retrofitted to both sell his product and demonstrate why he invested in it. He even has virtual reality goggles to visually replicate a small mixed-age herd of bison grazing.
Dave Carter, executive director of the National Bison Association, believes in bison too. Carter helped launch the effort to make bison the national mammal three years ago—over a beer in Big Sky, incidentally.
And on July 5, the association announced another big initiative. It aims to grow the current population from an estimated 391,000 head in private, public and tribal herds to 1 million by 2027. They’re calling it the “Bison 1 Million” campaign.
Although the hurdles—access to capital, land and mentorship, among others—are formidable, several speakers indicated that the consumer market is ripe for more bison.
“The opportunity is very, very vast,” said Laurie Demeritt, CEO of Hartman Research Group, a company that tracks demand trends in the food and beverage industry. “There’s absolutely a halo of health and wellness around bison in the minds of most consumers.”
She added that the appeal for premium and organic products largely centers on what’s not in the product.
According to Carter, who co-owns a herd in eastern Colorado, there are a number of animal husbandry practices that make bison appealing to some segments of the population. Bison producers do not de-horn, castrate, artificially inseminate or give growth hormones to their animals, he said.
During the final day of the conference, attendees arrived by the busload at Ted Turner’s Flying D Ranch south of Gallatin Gateway for a tour of the facilities.
Turner, the 78-year-old founder of CNN and a member of the National Buffalo Hall of Fame, offered a quick hello under large white tents that had been set up for the occasion. Flying D Ranch manager Danny Johnson gave a run-down of the spread: 3,600 head rotating through nine pastures in a contiguous piece of land that measures 145 square miles.
“The herd has never seen something like this,” said Johnston, gesturing to the bison grazing 100 yards away. “You think you’re the spectators [but] they’re watching you right now.”
Larry Feight, president of High Country Ag Marketing, says securing enough land, both public and private, to accommodate a herd that’s crested the 1-million mark will be tough.
“God isn’t making any more land,” said Feight, who displayed electrical fencing wares at the Big Sky Resort portion of the conference. “It’s going to take a lot of land mass to make that goal.”
Faye Brown with the Tanka Fund—a national campaign to return bison to the land, diets and economies of American Indian people—said she’d like to ensure that Native Americans producers are represented in the herd growth.
“In Indian Country right now, raising bison puts you in debt. We need to change that,” she said, adding that 60 percent of all Native American reservation land is not owned or controlled by tribes.
“Twenty to 30 years down the road, it would be wonderful to see … lots of young people and lots of reservation producers,” Brown said.