Bison biz goes organic

About five years ago, Andrew Stickle picked up a copy of Dan O'Brien's autobiographical Buffalo for the Broken Heart. The book documents O'Brien's 20-year struggle to convert his Broken Heart Ranch in South Dakota to a bison operation, and as Stickle read it, he felt a small spark of inspiration. He'd been around bison his whole life, having grown up on a small farm near a working bison ranch.

"Probably nothing will upset me quite as much as seeing bison in a feedlot," Stickle says. "Nothing looks quite as pathetic as that."

Now Stickle is one of the co-founders of Montana Maverick Organics. The start-up is barely in its infancy; they're launching a Kickstarter campaign this month to raise $100,000 for a starting herd of 250 bison, and don't expect to have meat on local shelves until spring 2016. But Stickle recently signed a contract for grazing land near Hot Springs, and the company has roughly 35 bison heifer calves it hopes to relocate to the property next summer. The stage is set, and Stickle sees a big future, one that involves more grazing land in Montana and plenty of bison for health-conscious locavores.

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"Our whole model is pretty much based on letting bison do what they want to do and getting out of the way," Stickle says.

The bison industry has grown steadily in Montana over the past decade. Dozens of small-herd ranches have joined the likes of big-name producers such as Ted Turner's Flying D Ranch and David Letterman's Deep Creek Ranch. The state now boasts roughly 30 commercial bison operations, and Troy Westre, co-owner of the Bitterroot Bison Company, says the industry is the healthiest it's been since he entered it in 2000.

"The reason it's coming back is that bison are just an overall better animal," says Westre, adding that he sold six meat bulls to clients last week for $3,500 a head. "They're better for the environment, they're better for people to eat."

Stickle says he's experienced some friction with cattle producers, mostly snide comments stemming from political differences over bison in the West. But he remains undeterred, his enthusiasm bolstered by the growing demand for bison meat and the thought of turning the company's first herd loose on open range.

"You think of bison," Stickle says, "and it's the quintessential spirit of the West."

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