Photography by Marla Camp
In the morning, before the heat sets in, Hugh Fitzsimmons drives his truck down rutted wheel tracks, looking for signs of his bison herd. He’s in no hurry, though his ranch is vast.
“Thirteen thousand acres,” he says. “More than I deserve.” Five miles per hour is slow enough to notice the richness in the endless grass, and Hugh likes to point out the details. Whip snake. Roadrunner. Jack rabbit. Mesquite. A 1920s-era windmill, revolving slowly.
Hugh has a copy of this land’s original Spanish grant, made to one Juan Francisco Lobrano in 1811. His family has raised cattle here—on more than 40 thousand acres now partitioned among the Fitzsimmons siblings—since 1935. It’s hard to imagine that it ever looked much different, if you take out the power lines, tire tracks and a few semi-modern houses and outbuildings.
In fact, you could argue that the land’s most significant transformation took place long before Señor Lobrano, in 1753, when the last southern bison was sighted in Dimmit County. Its second most important moment occurred in 1995, when Hugh began bringing bison back to the land, a few at a time. Today, his herd is 300 strong.
“I wanted something that would take care of itself,” Hugh remembers. “Not a lot of vet bills. Something indigenous.” Bison fit the bill. For hundreds of years, until being decimated by hunters who killed for tongues and hides but left bodies to rot, bison have been indigenous to huge sections of North America.
But by the mid-1800s, American red meat was synonymous with cattle, a relatively new import to the plains. Cattle could be fattened, shipped, butchered and sold in a way that seems impossible and unsustainable to a few iconoclastic ranchers like Hugh.
“Most cattle end up in feedlots, and we’ve basically destroyed them with diseases and hormones,” he says.
In The Worst Hard Time, a brutal account of how the destruction of the prairie created the Dust Bowl, Timothy Egan describes bison as “the finest grass-eating creature on four legs.”
Hugh takes it further: “Even the hoof of the buffalo is the shape of a sharp spade,” he says. “It flips over the earth, aerates it and then flips it back.” Grassland sustains bison; bison sustain grassland. The trick, Hugh says, is not to interfere.
“Ranching is really simple,” a professor once told him. “It’s keeping it simple that’s hard.”
Hugh tries to keep his ranch simply, even as his Thunder Heart Bison becomes an increasingly complex business. Hugh and his wife, Sarah, began by selling bison meat at Austin farmers’ markets, and quickly expanded. After they won the prestigious international Gallo Family Vineyards Gold Medal Award (in the meat and charcuterie division), high-end chefs developed a taste for Thunder Heart Bison—not just as a cutting-edge ingredient, but as delicious, healthy, grassfed red meat—lean, high in protein, and every bit as flavorful as the fanciest aged beef.
Beyond meat, Hugh’s bison also produce robes (luxurious rugs), decorative skulls, polished horns and supple, high-rent buffalo-hide bags sophisticated enough to fly off shelves at boutiques in places like Aspen, Colorado.
“I never get over how hard this animal works for us,” Hugh says. “In life and in death.”
There’s no way around the fact that bison have to die to produce bison products, and that’s what will happen today—not a slaughter, but a harvest. Hugh sent his very first bison to a slaughterhouse, but found the adrenaline-soaked meat inedible. After that, he became a “field harvester,” shooting a very few four-year-old animals in their natural habitat, pulling the trigger himself, in full view of the rest of the herd.
Hugh knows of only two other bison ranchers who harvest this way, though he’s sure there must be a few others.
This is a very strange development—that a killing method Hugh considers by far the most humane isn’t more widely used.
At about 10 a.m., ranch foreman Freddie Longoria and USDA inspector Bob Flowers meet Hugh not far from where he hopes to encounter bison. At any given time, his herd ranges over his entire acreage, having separated itself into the social/family groups Hugh calls “pods.” Each pod contains both sexes and all generations.
Bison harvest days provide Bob Flowers’ few chances to do his job outdoors instead of inside a slaughterhouse. He’s come prepared to do both a pre-mortem—determining whether the animals to be harvested are healthy—and the post-mortem—analyzing blood samples for traces of antibiotics, disease or added hormones. He’s never found anything of the sort in a Thunder Heart Bison, but rules are rules. Besides, he and Hugh enjoy their friendly, slightly sarcastic rapport.
The day is fresh and sunny, pleasantly scented with sage. As soon as Hugh’s truck appears in the clearing, about 25 bison come racing over, massive but surprisingly agile. A few cows with young calves stand farther away; an old bull hangs out by himself; the young males seem to spend all their time chasing each other, sparring, wallowing (another sign of aggressive posturing) and attempting to mount passing cows, who generally ignore them.
It’s hard not to graft human personalities onto the herd.
“Well, I learned my lesson about that,” Hugh recalls. “I had a bull, somewhat domesticated—when I gave him alfalfa cubes, he just walked right up and took them from me. But one day I ran out of cubes. I just held my hands up, and he slammed his head at me. He didn’t hit me. He stopped just short. Still, I felt all 2,100 pounds of him run through me—it totally electrified my body. Never again will I treat one of these animals like a pet. They’re wild animals.”
After dispersing alfalfa cubes to lure a few bison away from the coming harvest, Hugh rolls down the driver’s side window and spends a long time pinpointing young bulls who can produce the bone-in ribeye racks to send to the upscale Restaurant Daniel in New York City. “These are French chefs,” Hugh tells Bob. “They like their fat.”
A tractor and a refrigeration truck drive into the clearing. Hugh waits for them to cut their engines. A huge older bull approaches the passenger side of the truck, making a loud, deep, prehistoric sound, like water gurgling down a colossal drain. His giant head looms less than six feet from the car window.
Conversation in Hugh’s truck dwindles. At the end of the “alone time” he always takes to prepare himself for the kill, Hugh picks up his rifle and hits the stereo’s ON button. The sound of Oscar Peterson’s liquid piano riffs floats into the air, blending, in a counterintuitive way, with the general stillness.
Hugh raises his rifle, waits several minutes for a humane shot to present itself, then shoots, hitting one animal just behind the ear, successfully severing its medulla oblongata. The bull drops instantly onto its side.
As soon as they hear the pop of Hugh’s gun, the cows disappear into the underbrush, chasing their calves ahead of them, but showing none of the terror of a deer running from a man-made noise. They seem only to have decided that a field with a pop is no place for a calf.
Meanwhile, the young bulls amble closer, some touching their huge heads to the dying animal.
“It’s normal behavior,” Bob observes. “They’re community creatures, and they sometimes rub up on each other at times like this.”
The felled bull’s head rises and falls; then it’s over. In the next 10 minutes, Hugh shoots three more bison, this time while standing a short distance from the truck. The rest of the pod still shows no signs of leaving, so Hugh drives his truck slowly through the clearing, throwing alfalfa cubes to lure them further from the tractor that has pulled in next to the first dead bull.
In less than half an hour, the tractor has hauled each animal up by one foot to let its blood drain out, then loaded all four into a refrigeration truck for the trip to the processing plant, where they’ll be turned into a variety of cuts of meat, including the French Racks.
Hugh waves his arms at the remaining bison, perhaps shooing them away, or maybe in some kind of salute. Either way, they disappear over a rise, into a less inhabited part of the ranch.
“Every time I pull the trigger, I think this is the worst thing and the best thing,” says Hugh, emerging from his centered mood. “You’re taking a life and you have to do it correctly, honoring the animal. It’s a pretty heavy thing.”
“I understand that,” Bob agrees. “I have friends who ask me how I can do what I do for a living. I tell them that the T-bone they eat has to come from somewhere.”
Nobody on the ranch today was inclined to flinch from the truth. American carnivores have always eaten bison, once so necessary to maintain the grassland that supported so many forms of life. And now, after a long interruption, Hugh’s land, his family, and people as far away as the East Coast are being sustained by bison again.
“It makes you grateful for every bite you put in your mouth,” he says.