ome people have a pet dog. And then there’s Clair Vernon. He has bison. Five of them. Vernon, a Tooele resident, has a long-running fascination with the bison as a symbol of the untamed American west. They’re majestic and intriguing, he said. In particular, he said they remind him of Indians.
Bison once roamed America’s plains by the millions, and served as a primary source of sustenance for the Native American tribes in the area, Vernon said. The bison were so central to Native American culture that when the nation’s European settlers decided to take organized action against the remaining tribes, they made the bison one of their primary targets. Vernon said that in some circumstances, government officials distributed free bullets to hunters for the express purpose of eliminating the bison.
“People would shoot them from the trains for sport,” Vernon said.
The U.S. government encouraged this behavior, he added, thinking that if it could get rid of the bison, it would get rid of the Indians. By the late 1880s, just 1,000 bison remained.
There are currently about a half million bison in North America, though most live in domestic or semi-domestic, controlled environments. As the species has recovered, some of the surplus stock has made its way into the hands of private owners.
The thought that he might purchase a few bison of his own first crossed Vernon’s mind after he drew a once-in-a-lifetime tag to harvest a wild bison from the Henry Mountains in southeast Utah. About four years ago, he started attending an annual bison auction put on in Ogden by the Western Bison Association. He continued to think that he might like to purchase some of the animals for himself, but he didn’t have anywhere to put them.
Vernon eventually located a landowner with some space for a small herd west of Stockton. He also found out that Dan Martin, another local resident and one of Vernon’s friends, was interested in joining the venture and sharing some of the costs — just buying a six-month-old bison to start a herd can cost $1,200, Vernon said.
The pair founded their own herd last fall, acquiring two female bison, called cows, a calf, a yearling, and a young bull bison for breeding from a Coalville rancher whose own herd has consisted of as many as 150 head of bison. With that, they joined the roughly 5,000 private individuals who own and raise bison. Their kids made the move official, Vernon said, giving the bison names like Billy Jean and Buffet.
The venture was not without its early hiccups. The yearling they call Billy Jean was originally supposed to be a male, an extra bull they could harvest for meat in a year or two. Now that they’ve realized Billy is more of a Jean, they plan to save her for breeding instead.
Vernon and Martin have now settled into a routine, checking in on the herd to watch for developments — one of the cows is pregnant and due this spring — about once a week. Day-to-day care of the bison falls to the field’s owner, who Vernon and Martin pay for both room and board. Vernon in particular loves to watch the herd, and waxes poetic about their physical prowess. Though they can weight as much as 2,000 pounds, bison can run faster than a horse and display a surprising degree of grace and agility.
Martin is less sentimental.
“They’re food storage without an expiration date,” he said.
Both plan to keep their herd at about a half dozen. To keep the numbers down, Vernon said, they will harvest the excess animals, primarily the bulls, for meat when the calves mature. At two and a half years of age, a bison can produce 500 pounds of meat — plenty for the both of them. Though certain cuts of bison meat can sell for as much as $30 a pound, Vernon said they don’t have plans to sell the meat they produce.
“We’re not doing this to make money,” he said. “It’s just a hobby.”
But while there may not be a commercial aspect to their enterprise, Martin said there is an element of conservation.
“We kind of feel like we’re helping preserve something that was on the brink of extinction,” he said.