BISON'S FALL AND RISE
"The sense was, because the price of bison was increasing over beef, the bison market had a chance to build a new business, while cattle was controlled by packers like ConAgra," says Dave Carter, executive director of the National Bison Association. "It was a move back to the sort of independence that is more the true character of ranching. In the 1990s, more folks went into the business. The price of animals went way up when ranchers like Ted Turner built their herds." (Turner still dominates the field with 45,000 bison.)
By 1999, the price of heifers had increased 800 percent, and ranchers were getting into it for the play. "They were buying and selling animals," Carter says. "The processors were putting tons of bison chuck and burger into the freezer. Then the market tanked."
Whittlesey and his wife, Sue, felt the crash. "Our plan was to sell breeding stock," says Sue. "But when buffalo prices crashed, there was more supply than demand."
How did bison ranching recover? Mostly, Carter says, because ranchers realized they needed to be better marketers. Turner started his chain of more than 50 Ted's Montana Grill restaurants in 2002 primarily to move his bison meat, and national chains like Ruby Tuesday began serving bison in 2005. On the retail side, some conventional stores started to emphasize bison to differentiate themselves in the meat case.
These efforts have been aided by the popularity of the Atkins Diet, which encourages people to eat red meat, and by a public increasingly turned off to meat raised on antibiotics, growth hormones, and inappropriate feed ― none of which is utilized in bison ranching. Finally, the sustainable food movement came of age.