A main research interest of the Institute relates to the practice of bison ranching conducted in an economically sustainable and ecologically sensitive manner while promoting the conservation of native species and habitats.
American plains bison once numbered in the tens of millions and roamed across most of North America, playing a key role in the ecology of the Great Plains. Unfortunately, by the late 1800’s bison had been reduced to just a few hundred. While numbers have rebounded into the hundreds of thousands, most bison are now found in privately owned herds. Given only a few significant “wild” herds remain, wild bison are considered ecologically extinct; however, private herds can play an important role in conservation of the species and the ecological impacts bison provide. Thus, while the Institute is interested in advancing bison ranching as a sustainable economic enterprise, it is equally interested in enhancing the conservation status of American plains bison and understanding bison as an ecological driver.
Bison ranching is a small and relatively niche agricultural enterprise, but one with significant upside potential as a sustainable and environmentally friendly source of red meat protein. While there is comparatively little research and information available regarding bison, the bison industry has used research from other livestock industries to inform management decisions, with some success. However, it is clear that bison are not domestic cattle, as an example, and there are significant research needs in areas such as bison physiology, health and nutrition, productivity, feeding, meat quality and nutrient profile, genetics and breeding, husbandry and handling, and social structure and communication – as well as the environmental impacts of bison, their role in maintaining native ecosystems and ecosystem services, and the response of other wildlife and plant communities to bison grazing.
The Institute will fill a needed role in bison research, and also expand and support ecologically related agricultural research in the Great Plains, including management, conservation, restoration and wellbeing of native plants, wildlife, and fish species and their habitats, as well as range health and productivity, land and water resources, ecosystem services, and renewable energy, among other things, all within a framework of agricultural production (e.g., ranching).
Bison management at the Institute is focused on maintaining and improving rangeland health, biodiversity, and animal health and welfare. Although our properties are large, they have a finite carrying capacity and individuals have to be culled from the population in order to meet these operational goals. The Institute’s bison are sold both in the grain-finished and grass-finished bison markets.
The Institute conducts Low-Stress Livestock Handling (LSLH) on all ranches. Human and animal safety are greatly improved with LSLH techniques. Success starts with providing handlers with effective instruction on crisp, low-stress techniques that translate into clear direction to the animals and allows for successful bison moves on range and ease of handling in corrals. Frequent contact with animals and consistent technique is key. Animal health and productivity is greatly enhanced through LSLH. The ability to utilize pastures and difficult terrain are also improved. The application of these techniques has proven effective whether on foot, horseback or all-terrain vehicles.