Believing in Buffalo
Ranchers say bison provide healthier meat -- and a spiritual experience.
By Dan Malone
It is late in the day and the sun is trying to set, but the heat has yet to break. The midsummer day is so scorched and dry the last thing anyone would normally think about is adding more heat to it. But 48-year-old Hugh Fitzsimmons III is stomping about the brush in jeans, denim shirt, and boots, scavenging wood and kindling for a pit in the ground near his modest ranch house outside Carrizo Springs. Like his father and grandfather, Fitzsimmons ranches this arid and dusty land in South Texas not far from the Rio Grande, hoping the rain will come for the grass and that the mesquite and cactus won’t suck away all the moisture from the earth. Texas farmers and ranchers are notoriously generous with their harvests; they’re proud to show and share with strangers what they grew or raised with water, work, and luck. Fitzsimmons, who splits his time between his Dimmit County ranch and his home in San Antonio, is no exception. He has three New York strips cut from the carcass of one of his herd, and he intends to cook them for his guests this night.
Unlike the steaks that his father or grandfather might have served, Fitzsimmons says these will have less fat and cholesterol than traditional red meat — less even than some chicken. On top of that, he says, they’ll taste sweeter than beef, and a smaller portion will satisfy a hungry soul. The evening will tell.
He ranches bison, or buffalo as most people call them, animals once so thick on the North American plains that no one ever thought they could be anything other than plentiful. Then a generation of greed, blood-lust, and hatred at the end of the 19th century all but wiped them out.
Fitzsimmons is among a small number of ranchers in Texas, including some on the outskirts of the Metroplex, who are trying to give the buffalo a second chance to roam. But unlike most of his fellow bison ranchers, Fitzsimmons tries to let his animals live and die as closely as possible to the way their ancestors did several hundred years ago, with minimal human contact — no hormones, no grain to fatten them up, and no trip to the slaughterhouse. When it’s time to “harvest’’ one of his herd, Fitzsimmons or his friend, Ted Herrera, a Coahuiltecan Indian who also blesses each animal with a traditional prayer ceremony, does it with a rifle shot through the temple.
“I raise my animals in a spiritual fashion,’’ said Fitzsimmons, who also markets honey from the fragrant guajillo plants that bloom each spring on his land and has, in previous lives, taught American history and run a peach orchard “My goal is to raise [the bison] as close to nature as I can — just the way nature intended them to be hundreds or thousands of years ago when they were in Texas.’’ The result, he said, is a product that is good for nature, man, and beast.
Bison ranchers tend to wax poetic about their animals. Robert F. Hebeler Jr., who spends his weeks cracking open human chests as a thoracic surgeon, said the animals he runs outside Dallas “speak to him’’ the way a painting, or a piece of music, might speak to others.
“They’re a parable for all things lost and endangered,’’ he said of his decision to dabble in urban ranching. “It just seemed like the thing to do.’’
Cecil Miskin, a real estate lawyer who tends to a fluctuating herd of a dozen or more “bufs’’ in Burleson just south of Fort Worth, said his animals are a tonic at the end of hectic days in the courtroom.
“I can come home after whatever kind of day I’ve had, and I can watch them, and the world’s a calmer place. You can’t help but watch them,” he mused one recent morning as his bison grazed in a pasture outside his front door. “They just kinda float.’’
If these sentiments sound too tender-hearted for people in the meat business, think again. The ranchers interviewed for this story — whether they had a few or a few hundred head — can be as matter-of-fact about their animals as traditional cattle-raisers are about cows. Jess Oberly of Euless, who runs a dozen adult bison on his land he and his family fenced near Lake Whitney, hand-feeds a young bull — but he named him after the future awaiting him. “Hamburger,’’ he calls him. Ronny Wenzel, who can pass an afternoon chatting about the future of the bison business or how his young bulls have a playful distinctive trot he calls the buffalo hop, sells sausage made from their meat at a roadside stand just down the road.
The bison’s demise in North America roughly parallels the rise of the cow, one of the curious ebbs and flows of history in which tremendous energy was spent wiping out a healthy, readily abundant, majestic source of protein and replacing it with an uninspiring, fatty transplant.
Before the arrival of Europeans, a sea of brown bison floated over North America’s grasslands, stretching from what is now Canada to Mexico. Estimates of the herd’s size, according to the National Bison Association, range from 30 to 70 million animals. Nineteenth-century history is stained with accounts of the buffalo’s near annihilation. Because thousands were killed for sport or for their hides alone, carcasses left to rot on the plains became sun-bleached mountains of bones sold as fertilizer, until the North American bison herd dwindled to a pitiful 1,500 survivors.
The first European to see a buffalo in Texas may well have been responsible for bringing the cow to the Lone Star State as well. According to several histories, Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca — that’s Mr. Head of the Cow in gringo — encountered buffalo in the early 1500s and reported back to Spain the rumored existence of golden cities in the Southwest. His tales of glittering cities lured new explorers, who brought with them pigs, horses, and finally the ancestors of today’s iconic longhorns. The cattle industry boomed with land grants and the founding of cattle empires like the King Ranch. A new invention, the windmill, provided water for ranchers and their cattle on parched land. Barbed wire let settlers cut up and fence off the vast grasslands on which the buffalo once depended. By the time the stock raisers’ associations began to pop up around the country in the late 1800s, little remained of the buffalo but memory.
The survivors of the ruinous slaughter were eventually rescued by the federal government, which established a national preserve in Montana, and by a handful of ranchers, like Charles Goodnight, the fabled Texas rancher, who took the stragglers in. When the Goodnight Ranch became a Panhandle tourist attraction, according to the Handbook of Texas, Goodnight became one of the first to sell buffalo steaks to the curious and provide the humpbacked icons of a fading life to zoos around the world. The bison had become a historical curiosity. The last indigenous bison in Texas, a state-owned herd in the Panhandle’s Cap Rock Canyon, are descendants of those Goodnight rescued, according to the Texas Bison Association.
Over the course of the last century, the buffalo has made a modest comeback but in a very different world. The grasslands they once roamed are sliced and slivered by fences or covered with suburban asphalt and concrete. The 350,000 to 400,000 buffalo that exist today are spread across the country in ranches and preserves ranging from a few dozen acres to a few million.
The largest private owner is Ted Turner, the media mogul and philanthropist. His 32,000 animals roam on 2 million acres he owns in seven western states, and he’s trying to create a market for their meat with a chain of restaurants — Ted’s Montana Grills, featuring bison steaks and burgers.
Everything is supposed to be bigger in Texas, but the state bison ranchers have a long way to go before imperiling Turner’s empire. A few ranchers, like Fitzsimmons in South Texas and Stanley K. Harper near Venus, have herds of several hundred. But most ranchers, according to the Texas Bison Association, keep only a few or a few dozen in a cow-calf operation like a start-up cattle company.
And most everyone quoted in this story has been hit hard by a bottomed-out bison market. Animals that might have sold for several thousand dollars in the late 1990s now go for several hundred. Why that hasn’t translated into lower prices and better availability at grocery stores, which could boost production and sales, isn’t clear.
People have been bellowing about the taste of bison for almost 500 years, according to one 100-year-old history of the buffalo’s near extinction. After he stumbled upon a his first buffalo, Cabeza de Vaca noted that “the flesh is finer and sweeter” than that of the cattle in his homeland. A little over 200 years later, an English surveying party that, according to one member, had lived “upon venison and bear till our stomachs loath’d them,’’ issued a similar review: “We found it equal in goodness to the best beef.’’
It’s not hard to find live bison in Cowtown. The Fort Worth Nature Center has a small herd — a bull, five cows, and the tawny yellow calves born this year and still nursing — on its buffalo range. The calves are sold periodically at auction. But if you want your buffalo steaks already butchered, you’ll have to look a little harder — and be prepared for sticker shock. Bison meat can easily cost twice what beef does, or more.
If you want to dine in, Bonnell’s Fine Texas Cuisine and Lonesome Dove Western Bistro both dependably have buffalo on the menu. If you want to try cooking, Bisoncentral.com lists several sellers in Texas. Or you can hunt down an individual rancher such as Fitzsimmons, who runs a mail order business over the web at ShapeRanch.com.
Central Market in Fort Worth and Whole Foods in Arlington usually have buffalo meat for sale, although Central Market is iffy. The last several times I asked for fresh bison, a butcher there said all they had was frozen. Demand for fresh bison just isn’t there. “We throw away more than we sell,’’ he told me.
Lynn Kowalik, meat market manager at Central Market, said bison just isn’t a big seller. “We can sell up to like 10 pounds on a weekend,’’ he said. “Select customers come in that want it for its low fat content,’’ but such health-conscious carnivores are a “very small group.’’
At Whole Foods, Martin Sauceda, the store’s meat team leader, keeps a stock of fresh bison steaks and ground meat on hand as well as some frozen patties. The freshness apparently makes a difference in sales. During a typical week, Sauceda says his customers might buy 150 pounds.
Bison raisers like to brag about the healthful qualities of their product. With less than 3 grams of fat, 143 calories, and 82 milligrams of cholesterol per 100-gram serving, the National Bison Association says its product is leaner, lighter, and healthier than beef, pork, or chicken. These figures are widely repeated by bison ranchers across the state, and the NBA says the info comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
There’s a debate among bison ranchers about whether their animals retain their much-touted health benefits if they are raised like grain-fed cattle. Some bison ranchers, in an attempt to please consumers’ taste and boost profits, place their animals in feed lots and “finish’’ them off on grain during the final weeks or months before slaughter.
Fitzsimmons, president of the Texas Bison Association, is one of a very few ranchers who feed their animals only grass — and he noted that ranchers used to raise their cattle that way as well. “It wasn’t until the forties that they started going to the feed lots,’’ he said. If you put a bison on a feed lot, “you end up with a fat cow.’’
“Over the years everyone has been conditioned just by the very nature of the beast to view the bison as a plains animal that exists solely on grass because that’s the way nature intended them to be. I guess the only thing to say is, people are being fooled when they’re being sold bison that have been put on the feedlot from 60 to 120 days.
“I certainly understand the reasoning behind it. Nature is fickle. And being able to have grass is a blessing. When you don’t, and that corn is just right there around the corner, and you can finish an animal on corn and have it ready to go to market, it’s more of a sure thing for the producers.”
The trick to raising the healthiest bison, he said, is to keep human contact to a minimum. “If you leave them alone and be patient, everything will be OK. You have to realize they’re in charge; you’re not. If you give them food, water, and each other, you’re going to have success — if you’re willing to back off,’’ he said. “It’s so simple really, the exact opposite of what 80 percent of the NBA is doing.
“We’ve been so arrogant to believe we could make them something better, fatten them up, put them on the menu at Chili’s. ... It’s just something that happens when ... man comes along and sees something beautiful and says, ‘I can make it better.’”
Central Market’s Kowalik acknowledged that much of the bison meat he sells is both grain- and grass-fed, but disputed Fitzsimmons’ contention that finishing a bison on grain makes it the equivalent of a “fat cow.”
“During the last three months, they put them on the feed lot to beef them up a little bit,’’ he said. “It’s not going to wipe out the benefits of the product.’’
Whole Foods’ meat man Sauceda said the bison he sells are “grass fed and they roam the range’’ until they are taken to a processing plant, where they are fed all-natural grains for just a day or two before slaughter.
Cecil Miskin, like most bison ranchers, supplements the grass on which his bison graze with grain — and doesn’t think it makes much difference in the meat quality. Miskin was living in South Arlington and working as a real estate litigator when he decided, almost 20 years ago, to shuck the city life and move to the country. “I was looking for five acres and found 28.’’ He built a home on a plot of land outside Burleson. “I have always enjoyed the outdoors and spent a lot of time camping and fishing with my dad throughout Michigan. When I moved down here and saw the open spaces, I wanted to get out of the city and in the way of progress.’’
Then, in the early 1990s, he and his wife, Vicki, heard that another rancher was selling some of his bison. The couple took an income tax refund and bought a pair they named Humphrey and Heidi. Miskin said he had always been fascinated by buffalo and the purchase just seemed to fit with the Abe Lincoln fantasy he was living.
“I was a lawyer living in a log cabin,” he explained. “Wouldn’t it be neat to have some buffalo?’’
Ten years later, the Miskins’ buffalos consume much of their time. Their herd has now grown to 28, including six calves. Cecil has tried to market their meat to school districts as a healthy alternative to mystery-meat hot dogs. He’s trying to develop a market for their wool. The entrance to his home — the spacious, two-story log house in which he lives hardly qualifies as a “cabin’’ — is guarded by two concrete buffalos.
He still practices law, but the “bufs,’’ as Miskin calls them, are the anchor to his world. “Everything seems to be a chore — except the buffalo.’’
The scientific evidence seems to support both bison-raising philosophies — to a point. Martin Marchello, an animal science professor at North Dakota State University, and Judy Driskell, a nutrition science professor at the University of Nebraska, studied fat and cholesterol content of both grass- and grain-fed bison. The scientists noted that the Federal Drug Administration sets a five gram per hundred limit on food classified as low fat. The scientists found fat contents of 1.7 percent in the grass-fed bison and 2.2 percent in grain-fed. Cholesterol levels, were also close — 65 milligrams for grass and 67 for grain.
In an interview, Marchello shied away from calling bison the healthiest meat. Bison marketers sometimes overstate the benefits and fuzz up the facts, he said — by making comparison, for example, between the leanest cut of bison and chicken with its fatty skin left on. But he also said the meat is leaner than most and that grass-fed bison rate very high in omega 3 acids, which may help the body process cholesterol.
“I think the bison industry has a real advantage over our beef, pork, and lamb industries because they are in a position to promote a product with no hormones, no antibiotics, plus having a very lean meat,’’ he said.
Grain versus grass isn’t the only factor in the taste of bison meat, Fitzsimmons believes. “There are three things that determine the quality of a cut of meat — the genetics, what the animal is fed, and the manner in which the animal’s life is taken,” he said. “If they send it to a slaughterhouse, especially a wild animal like a bison,” the meat becomes “... so tough you can’t eat it.”
Alvin Jones, Fitzsimmons’ no-nonsense ranch manager, who has been working with bison for 40 years, agrees: “You kill an animal in that state and that’s the way he stays.’’
For that reason, Fitzsimmons kills his animals at the ranch instead of sending them to the slaughterhouse. “You take a deep breath,’’ he said. “You wait for the right moment. When the animal presents itself, and they always do, you shoot it in the temple.’’
To the best of his knowledge, Fitzsimmons said, only he and Dan O’Brien (a novelist and author of Buffalo for the Broken Heart, a memoir of his life as a bison rancher) exclusively grass-feed and field-harvest their animals.
Fitzsimmons’ animals are likely among a very select few that are blessed before dying — by his friend Ted Herrera. Herrera said he blesses and purifies the animals slaughtered in exchange for a ceremonial herd his tribe keeps on Fitzsimmons’ ranch.
“Lots of businesses have sweat equity, ‘’ he said. “I provide the spiritual equity. In our tradition, the number 5 is a sacred number. Once we know when the next harvest day is, I pray five days prior to that date and start preparing something to purify the site and the weapon and the shooter.’’
Herrera said he uses native sage for purification. A sacred mixture that includes peyote is offered for the bison “on its journey to the spirit world’’ in which the Coahuiltecan people believe man, animal, and plants are reunited. “We pray to let the spirits know there are some more four-leggeds coming to join the spiritual herd.’’
The fire Hugh Fitzsimmons built grows low before he puts the bison steaks on the grate. Because bison is so low in fat, it has to be cooked at lower temperatures to avoid drying out. “You have to cook this as the animal lived its life, low and slow,’’ he explains.
As the bison cooks, Fitzsimmons mixes several dozen yellow button squash with a rainbow of bell peppers in a baking pan and places it in the oven. He fills large tumblers with ice and water, and we cool ourselves near a watering hole where a dozen of more of his buffalo had watered and romped just a short while before.
A beef-eater would say the buffalo Fitzsimmons serves that night is juicy, tender, and rare. It’s pink but not bloody and without a visible trace of fat, sweet and clean on my palate without a whiff of gaminess.
Sitting by Fitzsimmons near his buffalo tank and listening with Herrera to the sounds of the night as it cools, it’s easy to imagine Coahuiltecan hunters, or vaqueros, or gringo cowpunchers huddled around a campfire dining on a freshly killed buffalo and giving thanks. Says Fitzsimmons: “This is as close as you can get it to the way it was 200 years ago.’’
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