“Three ladies raise bison in South Dakota, Colorado and Texas.
NOTE: this article was originally published to CowGirlmagazine.com on April 13, 2021. It was written by Karen Weintraub.
Nearly extinct by 1900, America’s native bison are returning to the range. Meet three women who are among those restoring both the bison and the grasslands on which they thrive.
A vast river of life surges through the valley—as wide as the Mississippi and flowing over the horizon. It’s the dawn of the 19th century, and this bison herd is nearly unfathomable in its size. Among the estimated 30 to 60 million American bison flowing over the Western plains at this time, each bison deposits 50 pounds of nutrient-rich manure a day on the land, pummeling it into the soil with sharp cloven hooves. Warily eyeing the bison, wolves lay in wait to dispense of the sick and weak. In the wake of the herd, countless scores of avian species pick through the manure for tasty seeds. The seeds left behind replenish the land’s plant diversity, and vast herds of elk, mule deer, and whitetails soon follow to feast on the renewed grasses. The spongy, chocolate-cake soil—enriched with trodden-in manure and teeming with beneficial microbes—retains rainfall to nourish terrestrial, avian, and aquatic life.
By the middle of the 19th century, three threats convened to threaten the very survival of the American bison.
First—in its quest to drive native Americans from their ancestral lands by deliberately starving them out—the U.S. Army killed hundreds of thousands of bison a year from 1865 through 1883. Plains Indians relied on bison not only for meat, but utilized every part of the animal, including skins for tipis; fur for robes; bones for tools; horns for spoons, ladles, and cups; hair for ropes and pillows; and fat for tallow, soap, and pemmican. The Indians revered the bison, whose generosity provided them with food, clothing, and shelter and whose existence was fundamental to their economy.
Second, the invention of barbed wire in 1874 would lead to the fencing-off of large tracts of range, allowing the new settlers to bring in their preferred bovine: the more-docile European and English cattle without the strong migratory instincts, humongous size, and independent dispositions of native bison.
Finally, the last spike of the Pacific Railroad was a spike in the heart of bison, as well: Now buffalo hunters could shoot bison by the hundreds each day from the comfort of the train, and settlers found easier passage west for themselves, their domestic cattle, and their “devil’s rope,” as its detractors called barbed wire.
By the end of the 19th century, only 300 American bison remained in the wild.
It would take not just a miracle but a plenitude of miracles to restore this keystone species to its native lands.
But what the heck … cowgirls thrive on miracles.
Heaven at the Triple-Seven
Although her two sisters lit a shuck for California from their hometown in South Dakota, Mimi Hillenbrand knew from the time she was a small girl that running her family’s 777 Bison Ranch, near Hermosa on the vast shortgrass prairie, would be her life’s calling. After graduating from the University of Montana with a B.S. in Wildlife Biology and earning her Master’s in Agricultural Sciences from Colorado State University, she turned her full attention to her beloved 777.
“The ranch has been in the family since 1972,” says Mimi. “My dad was a businessman first, but oversaw the ranch operation, as well. I took over from the previous manager nearly 20 years ago.
“The 777 began ranching bison in the early ’80s,” she continues. “Our original bison came from Custer National Park and the National Bison Range, both in Montana. I currently have about 1,800 bison on the 26,000-acre ranch.”
Mimi has been a disciple of Holistic Management since the ’80s. It’s a four-pronged system for managing livestock on grasslands designed to absorb and store carbon in the soil; retain water and increase biodiversity; provide nutritious and healthy foods; and create economic abundance for farmers and ranchers.
“It really does work, and it does make a difference,” she states. “Through this partnership with nature, and by creating a living classroom, the 777 Bison Ranch proves that a ranch can be both profitable and sustainable. Developing the ranch’s biodiversity takes patience, as it happens slowly over years. I’ve been rewarded with swarms of life—plants, insects, birds, wildlife—through managing the ecosystem. Basically, I manage the grasslands, and the bison pretty much manage themselves. They have such an interdependency with all the other animals, that when the bison thrive, everything thrives.
“Over the past 30 years, I’ve watched the ranch go through two seven-year droughts,” she continues, “and seen how the soil’s ability to hold water helped the ranch recover much more quickly.” The deep seed bank, aided by the bisons’ hooves working seed deep into the rich prairie soil, also hastened its post-drought renewal.
“We’re bringing a candy store to the bison with all the diverse grasses they have to choose from,” says Mimi. “The diversity in their diet assures that the bison are getting the most nutrition possible; they know what they need.”
Mimi’s efforts with the 777 have made the ranch an international model for modern ranching. “We were the first bison ranch in the U.S. to receive certification from the Global Animal Partnership,” she says. The ranch has garnered additional certifications from the American Grass-Fed Association and from Audubon for its grassland conservation efforts. Additionally, the 777 has earned Ecological Outcome Verification Certification and certification from the Savory Institute—the holy grail of Holistic Management developed by Allan Savory through his grasslands ecosystem research on four continents. Mimi follows Bud Williams’ low-stress livestock handling techniques and consults as well with Dr. Temple Grandin. As Mimi continues to build the genetic diversity of her herd, she has any new bison brought to the 777 DNA-tested to ensure they do not carry cattle genes.
The verdant, bison-dotted panoramic vistas she has created on the 777 have not escaped Hollywood: Her ranch was the location for both Wyatt Earp and Dances with Wolves.
“I want to be able to see green needlegrass … dung beetles … long-billed curlews,” says Mimi. “I want to be able to share all this with my nieces and nephews, and show the next generation that it’s not all about machines and chemicals.”
Starting from Scratch
“I have a bison herd; I just don’t have any land,” Sarah Gleason tells me, laughing, a couple years ago when we first met. A lot has happened since then.
Sarah, who grew up in a suburb of Colorado Springs, earned her chops as a competitive swimmer through training at the U.S. Olympic Training Center from the time she was 12. Her prowess earned her a berth on the Texas Christian University swim team, with which she competed for two years before transferring to the University of Colorado to complete her B.S. in Political Science. Following graduation, she worked for a congressman in Washington, D.C., and also for the non-profit Miami Fish Conservation Network.
Still, Colorado called her home, and she joined the staff at Zuke’s, a Durango-based all-natural dog treat company. “I worked directly with Zuke’s suppliers—primarily farmers and ranchers—and became entranced with bison,” she says. “I visited as many ranches as I could, and joined the National Bison Association.” Sarah then moved on to Whole Foods in Denver, where she was excited to see a new product launched by Austin, Texas, startup Epic Provisions: a high-energy protein bar that’s a modern-day version of pemmican, a Native American staple, made with berries, seeds, nuts, and lean meat. The meat was bison.
That fueled her passion to totally immerse herself in learning about bison ranching. “I saw then what I wanted to do,” Sarah says. “I went to work for Allan Savory at the Savory Institute to learn as much as I could about Holistic Management. I served as Savory’s marketing director from 2015 through 2019. While there, she would establish her brand and buy her first bison—from Mimi Hillenbrand.
Sarah would purchase the bison, and arrange for them to remain with Mimi’s herd on the 777 until she found a suitable ranch. Mimi was reluctant at first to accept Sarah’s proposal.
“I had never done a mentorship before,” Mimi tells me, “and really didn’t want to start. But Sarah, as you know, can be very … persistent.” Sarah bought 15 pregnant bison cows from Mimi in 2016, and together the women changed their ear tags from 777 Bison to Gleason Bison.
“I continued working for Savory while I searched for land and researched financing options,” says Sarah, “and in 2019, I purchased 882 acres near Durango: mixed irrigated pasture, rangeland, and 150 acres of timber and juniper forest that I manage for drought resistance.”
Sarah adheres to the Ecological Outcome Verification methodology on quantifying agnostic (without pre-conceived theories of change or expectation) regenerative outcomes in soil, carbon sequestration, water, species diversity, and native ground cover. As her ranch is so young, she only has baseline data at this time.
Her herd has grown: She now has 29 breeding cows, five calves, and 10 meat animals.
Before leaving the Savory Institute, she traveled to Zimbabwe with Allan Savory to his flagship regenerative project there, where she met Allan’s guests—the creators of that Epic Provisions Bison Bar that had caught her eye years ago at Whole Foods—Taylor Collins and Katie Forrest.
Seed (and fruit and meat) Money
Katie and Taylor both attended Austin High School but did not become sweethearts until they reconnected at Texas State University, over their shared love of endurance running. They soon discovered that not only did they share core values, but they also worked very well together.
“Our first company, which we ran throughout college, was a commercial recycling company,” Katie tells me, “which served about three dozen restaurants and other businesses. We’d start at about 4 a.m., and basically go ‘dumpster diving’ for recyclables. Horrible stenches, rats flying in your face, you name it.”
The nasty, backbreaking work saw them through college and funded their second company, Thunderbird Bars, making vegan energy bars for endurance athletes. Katie, a vegan herself, began to experience a series of unresolved health issues until her doctor made an unusual request: Her body needed protein and she should start eating meat. She began to thrive almost immediately.
The couple then sold Thunderbird Bars and launched Epic Provisions, a protein bar business that combined the best of energy bars with the best of meat snacks in 2013—creating an entirely new market in their freshly conceived niche between energy bars and jerky snacks. In 2016, they sold Epic Provisions to General Mills in 2016 for $100 million, as reported by Inc. magazine.
Now, they were able to pursue their real dream: Implementing Allan Savory’s Holistic Management practices on a piece of spent-out Hill Country land by raising bison.
The following year, Katie and Taylor purchased 450 acres of overgrazed and overfarmed ranchland along the Pedernales River, just east of Fredericksburg, Texas. When I visited their ROAM Ranch this past year, they had expanded their operation to more than 1,000 acres through a combination of acquisitions and leases.
“Bison have always been a symbol of strength and resilience,” says Katie. “And they can help build up soil more quickly than can cattle, which tend to concentrate in waterways and under trees. Bison prefer staying in grasslands, in a tight herd, so you see a great impact from high-density grazing. Their hooves are spade-shaped, so they break up the soil, preventing soil compaction and re-releasing seeds.”
Katie and Taylor rotate the bison to fresh pasture every few days. Trailing the bison, heritage turkeys, dozens of chickens, and ducks—along with throngs of meadowlarks and other songbirds—pick through the worked-up soil and manure for seeds, much as the birds followed the bison herds since time immortal. The couple allows the bison occasional access to the fragile riparian areas for a reason: “That’s where the best seed banks are,” says Katie. “The bison graze on big bluestem, switchgrass, and other native grasses there and spread the seeds throughout the ranch.
As of February 2021, ROAM Ranch had 126 bison, with spring calves on the way. “We acquired 23 from the Nature Conservancy, 35 from Wyoming, five from Kansas, a bull from Colorado, and our best bull, Cecil, who is a descendant of the Charles Goodnight herd. Many others have been born on the ranch.”
In addition, Katie and Taylor operate ROAM Ranch as an outdoor classroom, with classes on various regenerative ranching aspects, native grassland restoration, field-harvesting, and hunting mentorship throughout the year.
“We enjoy being able to impact small groups and families in hands-on experiences,” says Katie. “There’s a ripple effect after folks have a profound experience here, and then take that knowledge and share it with others.”
The land allowed bison to thrive because it needed them to nourish and replenish the soil so that throngs of other species could benefit. The desire to return bison to their ancestral lands created fierce women such as these three, creating a climate in which all species can flourish.