LOLO, Mont. -- Two days a week, Troy Westre hates his job.
Walking out into his 250-acre pasture in the Bitterroot Valley in western Montana, Westre finds his herd of bison and nestles up to a 1,200-pound bull.
"I get the animal sideways and shoot them right behind the ear, right in their spine, and their head disconnects," describes the co-owner of Bitterroot Bison and only certified-humane bison rancher registered under the nonprofit certification organization Humane Farm Animal Care. "The hardest thing about [bison ranching] is harvesting them. I don't like raising them, loving them and then killing them."
Westre's deep love for the iconic animal makes humane killing a no-brainer.
"I never really thought about [being certified] because everything I do is humane, as far as how I raise them, how I handle them and how I kill them," says Westre, who oversees that his bison are handled with care from birth to death.
Bison ranching became popular in the Plains states after the near extinction of the animal in the mid-19th century. When Westre bought seven Roosevelt Custer Plains bison in 1999, he thought ranching would be a hobby. Today, he is the sole caretaker for nearly 300 free-range bison and responsible for all aspects of the ranch, from producing and cutting hay to harvesting bulls.
Like most small bison ranches, Bitterroot Bison operates sustainably and locally, and nearly everything is sold in the Bitterroot Valley. Once a bull is harvested, it is sent to a nearby butchery for the meat to be quartered. The hide is sent to a tanner in a neighboring town to be made into blankets, clothing and rugs. A local jeweler makes earrings out of the horns, and Westre roasts the hooves into dog treats.
Rancher and Montana Bison Association President Aaron Paulson says the last decade has seen a steady increase in consumer demand. Currently, 60,000 bison are processed annually in the U.S., compared with 125,000 cattle processed each day. Bison meat is attractive because it is high in protein and low in fat. It also contains a higher concentration of minerals, such as iron, when compared with other meats.
In Montana, the third highest producer of bison after the Dakotas, the gourmet meat ranges from $8.99 per pound for ground burger to $22 per pound for premium cut steak.
Despite its success in the meat market, Bison ranching receives a bad reputation in the agricultural sector. Paulson says bison are believed to be difficult to manage, dangerous, hard on the land and more prone to carry disease detrimental to cattle.
"Bison need management, but they do not need micromanagement," says Paulson, who also added when managed correctly and allowed to graze in rotation, bison have a very minimal impact on the land.
To its ranchers, though, bison represent more than just income.
"There is something magical about the bison," says Roland Kroos, ranch management consultant and vice president for the MBA. "I've spent hours and days sitting by grazing pastures, listening to them. They are a very social animal and are still pretty darn wild."
Kroos thinks Bison ranching will continue to hold its place in the market, especially as producers practice sustainable and effective management, which will help the bottom-line in being socially, financially and ecologically beneficial.
"If you're ignoring or mismanaging one of those components, you're out of balance," Kroos says.
Bison ranching might pay his bills, but Westre's business choice is made based on the lifestyle.
"It's all about getting to live this kind of lifestyle and not having to punch a clock," Westre says. "I'm my own manager, I do it my own way and I get to be out in nature every day."