Ranch goes on the hunt for profit from bison
By Larry Dreiling
In the last few years, bison production has become a novel way for large operators to diversify their livestock herds while allowing small landowners an opportunity to enjoy these monarchs of the Plains and make a few bucks, too.
The Twin Pine Ranch, north of Wheatland, Wyo., is unlike either model in bison production. Specifically, the ranch scores its profits from fee hunting. Larry and Peggy Gerke and Larry's son, Dennis, operate a 250-head bison hunting operation where the Laramie Range meets the High Plains.
The Gerkes are former cattle ranchers who wanted a slower pace from their rigorous lifestyle. They say they've achieved that with bison. At one time, the ranch covered 52,000 acres. It has since been reduced to 14,000 acres.
"Cattle ranching here is extremely intensive because of the size of the ranch. It's rocky and it's hilly," says Peggy Gerke, whose father purchased the ranch in 1945. "The fencing was tremendous. We ran a tight cattle operation, checking cows all the time during calving season. We were moving into our 60s in age. We were looking for a way to make life a little easier and buffalo did that."
Larry adds: "It was a huge operation with 18-hour days. We now work seven hours a day. That's a big difference."
Peggy says she has seen lots of bison produced by "hobby farmers who raise 30 animals and are running the operations like they would with cattle."
That's not the Gerkes' style.
"(The hobby producer is) running them through the chutes and giving them shots," Peggy says. "That's too much stuff and I think they are trying to change the nature of the beast. There are lots of good, caring people out there who want to keep the animal just as it is."
One of the Gerkes' selling points for bison hunts from their ranch is that their animals are free of antibiotics and growth promotants.
"We don't give them any shots, so it's a natural piece of meat. They're never fed anything but grass and a little bit of hay," Larry says. "There's no additives at all. We never put them in a corral or run them through a chute."
Peggy returned to the ranch 19 years ago upon the death of her father. Larry was the ranch foreman. Both were divorced, and a relationship blossomed into marriage, with members of their blended family assisting in parts of the operation.
"Larry taught me a lot about the business, though I was a doubting Thomas and would go to two or three other places to see if he was right or not," Peggy says. "When I found out he was right 99 percent of the time, I started dating him."
The couple researched entering the bison business for nearly a decade.
"We started out just like most others, selling calves," Larry says. "That first year was when the market crashed and we couldn't sell anything. Next we tried to feed buffalo in the feedlot and lost money on that, too.
"After a bit, we started shooting a few of them. We hunted some of the original calves we couldn't get sold and some heifers. If you can't sell them for a profit, what do you do? You shoot them. That got our feet wet and it's gone from there."
Larry emphasizes that the ranch offers wide expanses for buffalo to roam. This creates the ability for hunters to either stalk a buffalo or to be driven close to a herd.
Truck or stalking
Those that prefer a close-in hunt often ride in the "Buffalo Truck," the Gerkes' modified army surplus deuce and a half. The Buffalo Truck is used to dress the bison, either in whole or in quarters, after it's killed. The carcass is then taken to the back of the hunter's truck for transport to processing.
"For safety and logistic reasons, rather than approaching the bison on foot, we carefully drive as close to the herd as they and the terrain will allow," Larry says. "Bison are very curious creatures. Normally, they hang around assessing us before deciding to move on, that's when you dismount and find your shot."
That does not mean that experienced hunters may not stalk for their bison. The Gerkes emphasize that sort of thing is for experienced hunters only, since bison are not easy to kill and require a practiced and accurate marksman. All hunters must be at least 14 years old.
"We have bow-and-arrow people come out here who enjoy the challenge," Larry says. "We have muzzle-loaders. We have all kinds of rifle and pistols. We have everything.
"I tell hunters to use the biggest rifle they're comfortable with. Buffalo are as tough to kill as a grizzly bear. The only stipulation we have is that whatever the hunter uses has to be legal for big game hunting in Wyoming. That's not the state's rule, that's our rule."
Those rules dictate that legal firearms for big game must have a barrel bore diameter of at least .23 of an inch and be chambered to fire a center fire cartridge not less than two inches overall length including a soft or expanding-point bullet, or any other cartridge that has a barrel bore diameter of at least .35 of an inch and generally delivers at least 500 foot pounds of impact at 100 yards.
Muzzle-loading rifles must have a barrel bore diameter of at least .40 of an inch and a charge of at least 50 grains of black powder. Minimum bow draw weight is 40 pounds.
Big rifles are best
"Bison are tough," Larry says. "Minimum calibers may work on a young heifer, but we recommend at least .30 caliber for other bison. We also don't advise hunters to use Remington Cor-Lokt bullets, since they haven't worked well on our bison.
"My son, Dennis, works with me. He takes the hunters out into the pastures and makes sure the animal the hunter selects is isolated so they don't hit anything else," Larry says. "The hunter can then hunt from the truck or he can stalk it. About 75 percent of our hunts are stalk hunts. We only do that if it's safe. I then come in with the deuce and a half."
The Gerkes aren't much for formalities of traditional fee hunts. They have no lodging at the ranch. Instead, a reservation for a hunting date includes information by return mail on lodging at hotels in nearby Wheatland and Douglas. Also included is information on how to arrange for processing or taxidermy services.
"We have people who just pack the animal in ice and haul them all the way to places like Phoenix and have the animal processed there," Larry says. "We've had buffalo go to just about every state."
The Gerkes try to sell their hunts at a price that's lower than beef prices, believing they are competing with beef on a small scale.
"Because of our prices, we have a lot of repeat hunters," Larry says. "This way, you can eat bison cheaper than you can eat beef. We're kind of out of the mainstream on that. Instead of charging more, we're charging less."
Price point equality
Taken as a whole with processing and/or taxidermy services added into the cost of the hunt, the Gerkes say they think their hunting fee is priced competitively with the purchase of sides of beef at a meat locker.
"We want to keep the price reasonable so we don't price out the working man," Larry Gerke says. "If you don't do that, all you'll have is rich doctors and lawyers coming out to hunt who are used to having their own way and don't understand the nature of what hunting buffalo or our business is."
The Gerkes already are sold out for hunting spots for the 2006 season. They credit that success to return hunters passing on the word to their friends.
"Nearly 40 percent of our business is word of mouth and about one third is from our website," Larry says.
Adds Peggy: "It's amazing that people will call ranchers wanting to come into the mountains and hunt elk. Then they find out about us and discover buffalo hunting." The Gerkes have elk and deer that traverse their ranch and have leased the ranch for those species to outfitters.
No vacancy for 2006
According to the ranch's price list on it's website, www.twinpineranch.homestead.com, spring 2005 heifers sold for $675 and spring 2005 bulls sold for $875. No cows or two-year and older bulls were for sale. A three-and-a-half-year old bull was for sale earlier this year on eBay. Reservations for the 2007 season of hunting at the ranch opened Oct. 1. Peggy anticipates filling all the reservations within just a few days.
"We don't have to scout for hunters," she says.
Because no older animals are for sale this year, it's unlikely the Gerkes' friends in taxidermy business will see much action from their clients this year.
"Bulls and cows make the best robes, and though mature bulls are obviously the best mounts, cows make nice head mounts as well," Peggy Gerke says. "Bulls are a little higher priced because of their heads and prettier robes. Most people just bleach the skull and some people want a robe."
Bison hunting season began on the ranch Aug.1 and runs until Jan. 15.
"It's a long season," Larry says. "July and August is when the animal is at their most tender. For those that want hides from older bulls, we try to get them to come between Nov. 15 and Jan. 15."
History and nature join
Another side benefit to hunting at Twin Pine Ranch is the viewing of many historical sights on the ranch along with narration by Larry.
"We have a lot of military history here," he says. "We have bivouac areas from when the army was building Fort Laramie. We have archeological things here, like ancient Indian burial caves and close to 10,000 teepee rings from the five tribes who've used the ranch."
The geological diversity at the ranch is some of the most interesting in the world," Larry says.
"We have lots of grassland students from the University of Wyoming come up here to see the place because we have all kinds of genetic diversity plains and mountains species of grass here," he says.
"I also have had university professors say they've learned more about geology and archeology listening to me and seeing what we have here than they did in school. I understand what I have here, or at least part of what I have."
What attracts Peggy Gerke is the ranch's ancient history from native tribes that once coursed the land.
"There were buffalo just teeming here 150 years ago," Peggy says. "It's kind of fun to think there once were Indian chiefs sitting up on the ridges and seeing the same kind of animals we enjoy today."
It's a lifestyle Larry hopes can continue for generations to come.
"This is a family business," he says. "If you keep it interesting for the younger generation they maybe will keep the ranch going. It takes two generations to build a ranch and a third to lose it."
For further information, contact: www.twinpineranch.homestead.com.
Larry Dreiling can be reached by phone at 785-628-1117 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.