Olson’s High Country Bison – Grass is Greener

First published in the July/August 2008 issue of EAT

With High Country Bison poised to make their excellent, free range bison available in BC, I felt this article is worth a revisit.

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Rancher Tom Olson is a man with a mission: he wants to restore the prairie to its original state of wild, native grasses and roaming bison herds. Photo by Gary Hynes

I’m bumping along a wet grass track on the back of an old ATV in search of a herd of North America plains bison. I hang on tight as we thrash through rough, short grass, ford creeks and precariously climb steep embankments. Tom Olson, a top Canadian tax lawyer by profession, a bison evangelist by determination, is driving, and it’s his bison we’re off in hot pursuit of. Olson’s ranch, a four-square-mile patch of rolling Alberta high prairie south of Pincher Creek and just north of the Montana border, allows the bison to live a semi-wild existence. There are no power lines to be seen and few trees—just open range as it once was before the oil rigs, the wind farms, the beef feedlots and the Caucasian.

I have come to stark Alberta from the softer, lusher coast because I want to visit the capital of red meat. Most meat consumed in B.C. comes from Alberta ranches, and I want to find out, first-hand, if the movement to a more sustainable food life has infiltrated this dusty conservative pocket. Among all the grain-finished, well-marbled protein on the hoof, I have heard there is beef and bison being raised organically and humanely. I have also read The Omnivore’s Dilemma and know that livestock raised naturally on grass is not only healthier to eat, it is also a helleva lot better for the environment (see “Grass Is Greener,” Part One, May/June Issue).

I head first to rancher Tom Olson’s bison High Country Ranch.

I ask Olson if he has had many journalists come by. “We had a TV crew from the Discovery Channel back in 1995,” he says, “and the Calgary Sun once did a story on us, but you’re the first food journalist I’ve seen—most journalists have only been interested in the eco angle. We have had a few chefs come, though; they really wanted to see the bison up close.”

It is the ideal wintering area where warm chinooks melt the snow down to a level that the bison can get at the grass or fescue, as the local grasses are called.

Traditionally, this high plains area was the wintering ground for thousands upon thousands of bison. Come winter, Olson moves many of his 4,000 head from his other ranches (he owns three) to this high-altitude area up in the foothills of the Rockies. It is the ideal wintering area where warm chinooks melt the snow down to a level that the bison can get at the grass or fescue, as the local grasses are called. In summer, the bison migrate to lower levels and more abundant fresh-growing grass. The grasses are the key to raising bison.

Olson is fit and sun-weathered. He usually walks his ranch (about six miles) every day. (What better way to keep an eye on the grass?) Every once in a while, Olson spots a patch of grass and we stop to take a closer look. To me it looks like, well, just grass. But to Olson, it is a biosphere containing dozens of grass species that have been supporting life on the prairie for a very long time. Like a farmer surveying his land, Olson is attuned to the grass’s health, its nuances of green and beige, and all the insects and small wildlife (as well as the large – at one point we spot a grizzly on the other side of a small valley) that inhabit the grassland.

Olson explains, “I see myself as a grass farmer first. The bison don’t need brought-in food to survive. They can live wholly on the grass they find and guess what – it’s free – it only needs the sun to grow. There’s no call for expensive, oil-based fertilizers or corporate-controlled designer seeds. It’s a symbiotic relationship. The grass nourishes the bison while the bison carries the grass seed to other areas and replenishes the soils with its dung. Our native grass is fescue (Festuca saximon-Tana), and it is the foundation upon which the whole prairie ecosystem is built. Unfortunately, over the years invasive, non-native grasses have taken over. They’re not as nourishing, and they crowd out the good native species, turning the prairie into a monoculture. My goal is to return the land to its original state of native grasses.”

By now we’ve been out in the rain and cold searching for his elusive bison for more than two hours, and we’ve seen only one solitary old bull grazing off in the distance. Olson knows where they were yesterday, but because they move around so much they could be anywhere on the ranch today. We ford yet another creek while I hang on tight and try to listen to Olson rattle off facts and stories and debunk myths. “We call them bison, not buffalo, which refers to the Asian no hump,” says Olson. There are other myths, too. “Comparisons to cattle are quite incorrect. While cattle are essentially lazy and prefer not to move much, bison are quite the opposite. Unlike the sedentary cow, bison are fast, constantly on the move and cover big distances. Bison also have a strong social structure comprised of families.”

As we continue our exploration of the ranch, Olson points out areas where the native grasses have again taken hold. He’s proud that he’s been able to accomplish this. We head for higher ground to see if we can spot the herd from a knoll. Finally, we come up over a rise and there they are—a magnificent sight—reminiscent of an old Cowboy and Indian Hollywood film, but better. Bulls, cows and calves are strung out along the rise. As we pull close, they look at us, curious but unafraid. They’re huge; some weigh as much as 2,000 pounds. A couple of protective bulls start to meander toward us, and Olson says we’d better back off a bit. I take my pictures and we leave.

Later that evening we dine on bison tenderloin with a sauce of Auchentoshan single malt, chocolate and local saskatoon berries at the Lamp Post Dining Room in the historic Kilmorey Lodge in Waterton Lakes National Park. It is tender like beef but different—slightly sweet tasting, quite lean and mildly gamey yet with a clean flavour. I’d call it true. Eaten so close to the source it seems so right—in harmony with it surroundings.

Returning to the coast, I go over what I’ve seen and learned. Southern Alberta is a vast bioregion that has yet to be ruined and as Canadians we should demand that this precious land be kept as it is and protected. I’ve been impressed by Tom Olson’s determination to save the plains bison. Bison is the perfect meat animal: wild, sustainable and living off the sun and the grass, with incredibly strong immune systems. Unlike most cattle, bison stay outside all of their three-to-four year life, all the while living off the native grasses.

Olson’s High Country Bison  403.974.3425

Written By:

Gary Hynes, a writer and photographer, founded EAT magazine in 1998 and is its editor and chief paperboy. He studied Electronic Music with Samuel Dolan at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music, Audio Recording Technology at ...

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