She watches us calmly with her big, brown eyes as we approach the pen in the middle of a pasture scattered with spiky Douglas firs, juniper trees, and light-green sagebrush. The Big Belts, a Rocky Mountain hill range in western Montana, rise around the field, and the waters of Canyon Ferry Lake glimmer on the horizon. Matt Elvbakken, the man hired to kill the 900-pound bison, is wearing camouflage rubber boots, a camouflage t-shirt, and a camouflage baseball cap. He crouches down and looks her straight in the eye. A long, yellow Winchester .243-caliber rifle rests in the crook of his sunburnt arm. “It’s just not your day,” Elvbakken says to the animal.
The bison bends her dark brown shaggy head to eat some oats and the butcher takes aim. We are close enough to feel her heat and see the houndstongue stickers caught in the soft fuzzy bonnet between her horns. When he shoots her in the head, the loud shot pierces the bright morning air and echoes through the Big Belt hills. The animal lurches forward violently, front hooves tucked under her chest, and collapses to the ground. The undigested oats from the last meal spill out and her amber eyes, with horizontal pupils like the eyes of sheep and goats, are wide open. Elvbakken calls for a sharp knife to cut the carotid artery and jugular vein and uses it to quickly bleed the animal out. Bright red blood gushes from her neck into the field. The sun is blazing but the herd of 80 bison is out in the open, gathered around the pen and watching.
I had come to Big Sky Country to learn how to raise bison sustainably. Annual supermarket and retail sales of American bison meat, commonly known as buffalo, top $250 million, according to the National Bison Association, and bison burgers are now regular menu items from California to Maine. On their off-the-grid Wild Echo Bison Ranch in Townsend, Montana, wildlife biologists Craig and Pam Knowles don’t use antibiotics or hormones on sick buffalo, and strive to protect both the health of the land and the animals. When it comes time to sell meat to an interested customer, the Knowleses avoid trucking their buffs to the nearest slaughterhouse in order to minimize any trauma their animals might feel. “If we had our way, every one of our animals would be put down in the field,” says Pam.
Bison heart meat taco. Photo: Abbie Fentress Swanson
That’s where butcher Matt Elvbakken and his Winchester come in. Elvbakken has the tall, solid frame you might expect of a man who slaughters cattle, hogs, sheep, moose, bear, deer, elk, antelope, and the occasional buffalo for a living; he describes himself as “53-years-old, 6’2” and a whopping 270 pounds of rompin’ stompin’ romance!” He learned the ropes of the meatpacking business working the kill floor and boning room at Midland Empire Packing Company in Billings, Montana, which has since closed. Now, Elvbakken’s got his own meat processing company in Helena, Tizer Meats.
In 2009, Tizer Meats bought a used frozen-pizza delivery truck and turned it into a butcher’s shop on wheels. Elvbakken installed a power inverter, water pump, and insulated 250-gallon water tank, and added a winch with two lines to the back for hoisting carcasses from the ground. The meat from five beef cattle or 15 sheep and hogs can hang neatly in the back of the truck. With that finished, he had his own slaughterhouse on wheels.
Matt Elvbakken and the Knowleses. Photo: Abbie Fentress Swanson
Elvbakken will bring his mobile slaughter unit, as the truck is technically called, to ranches within a 100-mile radius of his Helena shop. This may sound like a long haul. But in this stunningly beautiful part of rural Montana, you can expect to drive an hour under the vast cerulean sky for a cone of huckleberry ice cream before the rodeo or country karaoke night at the local watering hole. Off the main highways, cell phone reception is spotty, roads are rutted and unpaved, and it’s not uncommon to glimpse wild mustang, moose, and elk. Ranchers like the Knowleses live miles from their nearest neighbor and they value their self-sufficiency—the ranch’s electricity is powered by solar panels and a wind turbine. But living in the wilderness does have its challenges, especially where the bison are concerned, and that’s what makes Elvbakken’s services so appealing.
Fall is the busiest season for slaughtering game, cattle, and hogs. Sheep season picks up in the spring. The butcher says it’s a good day when the truck is full and the travel short: “It’s usually feast or famine in that we will get two or three beef cattle at several different locations and possibly some swine or sheep as well. There are days we don’t slaughter anything and others where we can’t get everything.”