FLATHEAD INDIAN RESERVATION – There were once upwards of 60 million Bison in North America until the population was brought down to around 300. One Montana rancher is raising bison while also making a business out of it.
“Every time we traveled across the country we would stop to go see the buffalo in South Dakota, North Dakota, and Montana, and so it was kind of an annual trip — and I was always just fascinated with the animal,” said Roam Free Bison Bites owner Jonathan Sepp. “So, I always knew later on in life at some point I was going to basically work into raising bison, so that’s where the journey started.”
Sepp did just that. He spent nine years in the U.S. Air Force saving up money before moving to Montana to buy his own ranch to raise and sell bison.
He began selling raw and frozen pieces of bison meat until he found it wasn’t going to work financially.
“The cost of freezing and transportation and all this was far too high for the amount that you could raise on land and still turn a profit. I was working two jobs and started a construction company, as well, just to basically be paying this place down,” Sepp recalled.
Then Sepp met Brittany Masters in Seattle.
“I met him, he’s like ‘I have a bison ranch.’ I’m like ‘is it grass fed? Are you holistically managed?’ Are you like all these things — and he was like ‘I am but it’s not as easy as it seems’,” Masters said.
Masters and Sepp worked to find a better way to sell their product.
“Nine months ago we started on a journey to shift our business model a little bit and distribute wider to more people in a cheaper format of non-frozen meat, which requires us to smoke it and dry it — which is how people have been doing it for thousands of years.”
Not only did they find a cheaper way to distribute, but they also managed to keep in mind their main goal of creating a healthy product.
“We thought if we’re going to put out this product, something from the ranch, we want to be able to meet those expectations because that’s how we eat…personally we eat very healthy,” Sepp said.
The bison jerky they make is sugar-free, but Sepp says that doesn’t take away from the taste.
“People think, ‘well if you eat healthy, it’s going to taste bad’ and that’s…not the case either with this product,” Sepp said. “You know we really like eating savory products and so what we put out, although we only use bison and organic spices we utilize the natural sweetness of bison meat to still give it that tang that people really like in getting a sweet jerky product but it’s not overdone.”
The more Jon and Brittany talked about their business, the more it became noticeable that they weren’t just in this business to make a living, but more so to spread awareness of healthy eating and the benefits of raising healthy bison.
“Two-thirds and what we do is promotion and education and maybe one-third of what we do is selling. We wrap it all into one, education, raising, you know a healthy product out there,” Sepp said.
Not only does raising healthy bison benefit the people who eat it, but the land the bison roam as well.
“I think we’re passionate about not just creating healthy food but creating healthy land out here and bison are the animal that created basically North America,” Sepp said.
“A lot of hills, everything you see when you look around Montana, the way the grasslands formed, where water decided to run- all that was shaped by hundreds of millions of bison over tens of thousands of years,” Sepp added.
Grasslands are the most endangered ecosystem in North America and the bison are helping to repair that. As the animals graze, their hooves break the soil, bury seeds and create millions of small pockets in the earth to capture precious moisture and topsoil.
Through Free Road Bison Bites, Sepp and Masters hope to inspire others to raise bison and bring the population back to even a fraction of what it once was. They know that Montana is a special place and their business is possible because of that.
“We couldn’t do this anywhere else other than Montana, truthfully, you know the cost of the land, the land that you need to raise bison, I mean there’s not too many properties out there you can actually still own in any other state or any other country for that matter,” Masters said.
Roam Free Bison Bites travels the state in their transformed trailer, teaching people about their company and the benefits of raising bison.
MTN’s Jack Ginsburg