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Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Raising and harvesting bison at the Medano Zapata Ranch


Reports of the West’s death are greatly exaggerated.  I spend a lot of time with ranchers and cowboys, and I just spent a few days among a herd of bison, the West’s most iconic grazing animal, at the Medano Zapata Ranch, at the foot of the Great Sand Dunes and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.  A herd of bison grazing, trampling, and raising dust is a spectacular sight for anyone who loves Western rangelands.

The Medano Zapata Ranch is actually two adjacent ranches which together sprawl over 103,000 acres of chico flats, sagebrush, and natural wetlands in the closed basin in the northeastern San Luis Valley. 
The ranch is owned by The Nature Conservancy, leased to Duke Phillips, and managed by Jeff Gossage. 
I spent a few days with Jeff and his wife Carla, enjoying hospitality, food, and great old Americana music on Jeff’s record player.

Jeff, Carla, and I have something in common: none of us grew up ranching.  She is from Germany, where she said most people think of the West as something from the past—like maybe all the cowboys rode off into the sunset decades ago.  Yet here we are, ranching.


Jeff, Rex, and I spent most of two days cutting meat from a young bull bison and Jeff’s large bull elk.  The meat had hung (dry-aged) for 3 to 4 weeks, tenderizing it but also producing the usual rind that we had to trim off.  I like the way that, if the meat is not frozen, the knife finds the right path through the meat.  We carved up steaks and a few roasts, and ground the rest, adding fat from a butchered hog, even making sausage.  Enough to feed the ranch crew for months, if not the year.

We ate some raw backstrap as we carved, which made me feel Paleolithic.  Killing magnificent animals for food, and then cutting and eating that meat, are activities—and skills—close to the core of what it means to be a human.  Which is to say, part elk and part bison.  In a very real sense, “all flesh is grass.” (Not to mention microbes.)

Having put up meat for the winter, I felt like a satisfied bear ready for hibernation.  Then, sleeping under a buffalo robe, I dreamed that I had to slay three knife- or sword-wielding adversaries with my carving knife.
Sangre de Cristo.