TROY WESTRE OF BITTERROOT BISON GETS US UP, CLOSE, AND PERSONAL TO HIS BISON HERD
It sounds like the noise a dinosaur might make. Or maybe the mix between a walrus and lion, a guttural growling that comes deep from the belly of the animal. It is the warning sound a bull bison makes when it’s breeding season and he sees another bull closing in on the cow the former’s been courting. The bulls exchange growls for minutes. As we watch them pace around each other, my host, bison wrangler and partner of Bitterroot Bison, Troy Westre, names the animals for me.
“That’s a Bonner Ferry Bull. That’s Prince’s brother,” he said.
The growling gets louder, reverberating around the meadow by the river. The cows and other bulls seem not to be paying it much attention, but Troy’s on alert: “That’s fricking scary,” he said. “They’re gonna fight.”
A fight might be alright if we were on the other side of an electric fence, but we’re not. We’re in the middle of them, thirty feet away in a golf-cart sized “Gator.” The bulls weigh 2,800 pounds apiece; they can run up to 35 miles per hour. They’re not interested in charging us, but I’m slightly worried that we could be their first collateral.
Except I know I’m in good hands.
Troy has been raising bison for 18 years and no one has been killed or maimed by one on his watch. (He’s had two take a ride on their heads while sorting them.) He’s learned not to be complacent with them and to afford these beasts a healthy measure of respect: The Gator stays running, just in case the bulls get some fire in their blood.
Troy does not come from a ranching background. He was a welder of railroad cars by trade and took up bison-rearing as a hobby on his land in Frenchtown because he had “always liked the animal.” He wasn’t expecting to make a business out of it, but his herd kept expanding and by 2005 he was looking for more land to lease. That year, he had back surgery performed by a local surgeon named Chriss Mack. After the operation, Troy noticed pictures of bison in Chriss’s office and found out that he had his own herd. The two men decided to become partners, and they moved their merged herds onto Chriss’s land between Highway 93 and the Bitterroot River just north of Lolo. Troy quit his job and dedicated himself fulltime to raising bison.
Troy believes the future of ranching in Montana is in bison. In his mind, they hold numerous advantages over cattle: They’re less work to raise, they’re easier on the land, they’re healthier to eat, and the price for their meat is going through the roof—the national average for burger is currently hovering around $12 a pound. Plus, almost none of their carcass goes to waste. Troy can sell a tanned hide for $1,000 and a skull for $300. He has mugs and earrings made from the horns and coats and blankets from the hides. Much of the processing Troy does himself (he’s been to taxidermy school), or he hires out to local artists. He’s able to make nearly as much from a bison’s byproducts as he does from the meat of the animal. Taken all together, it’s a profitable and sustainable business model.
Troy calls bison “a hands-off animal.”
“With cattle, you’re always pulling calves. I’ve pulled three in 18 years. With cattle, you’re vaccinating all the time. With our bison, all we do is de-worm them once.”
After calving in May, he lets the cows and calves out on the 250 acres of irrigated floodplain along the Bitterroot River. Here, the bison act as the natural mowers of the landscape that they evolved to be—if they’re stocked at an appropriate level, they promote the growth of the grass. The heifers are sold for breeding stock and the bulls are raised for two years on their ranch in Stevensville before being harvested by Troy himself and butchered at Lolo Locker, a full- service packing house. From farm to table, Troy is committed to keeping everything local: “All of our stuff is sold right here in this valley—the Bitterroot—and Missoula. We do a lot through the food truck [that Troy’s son Zach Westre runs (see sidebar)], Lolo Peak Brewery, Lolo Locker, and Broadway Bar and Grill.”
Bitterroot Bison is certified as the only Certified Humane bison ranch in the country. To achieve the certification, Troy didn’t need to change any of his practices—he had always prioritized “the bison first, and money second.” In 2015, Humane Farm Animal Care came to inspect Bitterroot Bison’s facilities as well as the grazing, watering, harvesting, and butchering processes and established the ranch as the humane standard in the U.S. for raising bison.
When you spend some time with Troy, you can tell that he cares a great deal about taking care of his animals. When I ask him how he likes the work, he pauses and delivers a response I wasn’t expecting: “I’m really getting tired of harvesting the bison because I love them. It’s kind of a catch-22. But, it’s a necessity to ensure these animals don’t end up in feed lots.”
Out in the field, before we stopped at the growling bulls, Troy idled the Gator by a bull laying down in the field. He got out of the Gator with a bottle of bug spray and walked up to its enormous head—almost as big as he is tall—to spray him down and help keep flies away. He told me the bison’s name is Dozer; Troy raised him from a bottle after his mother died. From the way he treats Dozer, you can tell Troy wants his animals to have the healthiest, happiest life they can. It’s this level of respect and commitment that sets Troy and his operation apart.