Califonia Bountiful

A home where the bison roam

March/April 2020 California Bountiful magazine

Rancher continues father's legacy with a thriving herd

Bob Lawson's herd of about 60 bison roams freely throughout the grasslands of J-Bar-S Ranch near Ukiah. Photo: © 2020 Paige Green

Fulfilling his father's legacy, Mendocino County rancher Bob Lawson cultivates a home where bison can roam.

"My dad moved to Ukiah from the Bay Area in the 1980s with the goal of retiring on 40 acres," Lawson said. "When he learned about American bison, he decided to raise a few. But my dad didn't do anything small. By the end of the decade, there were as many as 60 bison at his J-Bar-S Ranch."

By growing his herd, the elder Lawson became one of many ranchers working to revive what was once a dwindling population of North American bison. In the mid-1880s, just 700 of the animals remained, and the species was on the verge of extinction, according to the National Bison Association. Today's herds are descendants of those animals, and their numbers have swollen to an estimated 380,000 bison now living on private, public and tribal lands in North America.

Lawson made a promise to his father that he'd carry on the J-Bar-S Ranch operations after the elder rancher passed. Lawson and his wife, Barbara, moved to the Ukiah property in 2010, and today their ranch totals nearly 700 acres where dozens of bison—including three 2,000-pound bulls, 37 1,200-pound bison cows and 18 calves born last summer—roam freely throughout grasslands.

"We pretty much let them go where they want on the ranch," he said. "They like to stay together as a herd and continually move around the property, where they have hundreds of acres to roam. There's plenty to eat and lots of water, so they're happy."

Bison are self-sufficient animals that thrive primarily on native grasses, although J-Bar-S Ranch manager Jake Harvey provides hay and mineral supplements as needed. Photo: © 2020 Paige Green

J-Bar-S bison eat only grass, with occasional hay and mineral supplements as needed.

"We help move them around a bit, so they don't overgraze," Lawson added. "It keeps the animals and the land healthy."

This type of progressive roaming comes naturally for bison, which have moved across the Great Plains and prairies of North America for centuries. These days, most bison can still be found grazing in herds on native grasslands.

Lawson and his wife, Barbara, shown with dog Sage, carry on his father's ranching legacy. Photo: © 2020 Paige Green

Bison and buffalo are not the same

Although the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, bison and buffalo are not the same species. Bison are native to North America and Europe. Buffalo—including water buffalo—are an Old World species that evolved in Asia and Africa. Experts say French explorers arriving in North America during the 17th century encountering bison for the first time referred to them as "les boeufs," which was later pronounced by English settlers as "buffle," "buffillo" and eventually "buffalo."

The average lifespan of a bison is 20 to 25 years for females and 20 years for bulls. The females typically breed when they are 2 years old and have their first calves at age 3, often giving birth annually.

Bison are extremely self-sufficient, according to Lawson. They typically don't need help with calving and will work together to protect their herd if feeling threatened.

"They pretty much take care of themselves, and they adapt to their environment," he said. "Bison are strong survivors."

Bison are not domesticated animals and must be treated with caution. Lawson says they can't be herded, but will follow the trail of a ranch hand who spreads out hay for their meal. Trying to pet them is out of the question.

"They're big and strong and they move fast—up to 40 mph," he said. "You don't want to get in the middle of a herd. But you can spend hours watching them. They're very social with each other."

Shannon Lawson restocks the inventory at her family's bison store, which offers a full selection of cuts ranging from rib-eyes to roasts. Photo: © 2020 Paige Green

A flavorful choice

The J-Bar-S Ranch is known for its bison store, a popular stop for residents and people traveling on U.S. Highway 101 or State Route 20 between Lake and Mendocino counties. It is managed by Lawson's daughter, Shannon.

The store sells virtually all cuts of bison, including steaks, ribs, ground meat, roasts and briskets. Some customers stop just to purchase bison jerky, which is available in three flavors at the store.

"Rib-eyes and ground bison are our biggest sellers," Lawson said. "We have a hard time keeping the premium cuts in stock."

Lawson goes all-out when it comes to featuring bison at special family meals. He likes to prepare an entire tenderloin, flavoring it with a rub and searing it at a high temperature before letting it cook for a few hours in the oven with the heat turned down.

"Bison meat has a bit of a sweetness and it doesn't taste gamey," he said. "It's a flavorful, lean meat with very little fat or marbling."

It's also low in calories and cholesterol, while being rich in iron and essential fatty acids such as omega-3. Because of its limited fat content, bison meat tends to shrink very little and cook quickly. Cooking it low and slow helps maintain its juices and tenderness.

Chef/owner Taylor Pedersen serves a J-Bar-S bison burger at Ukiah Brewing Co. & Restaurant. Photo: © 2020 Paige Green

At the nearby Ukiah Brewing Co. & Restaurant, chef and owner Taylor Pedersen says he's a fan of Lawson's ground bison. He reports the J-Bar-S bison burger is the second most popular item on the food menu.

"People love our bison burger," he said. "The quality of J-Bar-S bison is phenomenal. It's full of flavor that doesn't rely on fat. It's beefy with a bit of natural saltiness and a nice nutty tone."

Pedersen tops the burger with a sweet and spicy barbecue sauce.

"When my dad first moved to the ranch, someone encouraged him to take in some rescued llamas. But he chose to raise American bison instead," rancher Lawson said. "I'm glad he did."

Jolaine Collins

The J-Bar-S bison burger is the second most popular food item on Pedersen's menu. Photo: © 2020 Paige Green

How to build a better bison burger

When making a bison burger, go for a balance of flavors, advises Taylor Pedersen, chef and owner of Ukiah Brewing Co. & Restaurant.

"A combination of acidity, sweetness, saltiness and spices will tantalize all of your taste buds," he said.

The restaurant's J-Bar-S bison burger is complemented with a house-made, sweet and smoky barbecue sauce that melts between the crumbles of the burger and is topped with fresh jalapeños, bacon, crispy fried onions and cheddar cheese.

Here are the chef's secrets behind the bestselling burger:

  • Prepare crispy fried onions: Slice yellow onions, toss in flour and fry in hot oil until crisp. Pat dry and season with salt and pepper; set aside.
  • Form ground bison meat into 1/4- to 1/2-lb. patties.
  • Heat grill to high and oil grates.
  • Generously season both sides of patty with salt and pepper.
  • Place patty on grill and cook to an internal temperature of 130 to 135 degrees—medium rare. Avoid overcooking.
  • Top burger with cheddar cheese, onions, jalapeño and bacon. Additional condiments such as lettuce may be added.
  • Spoon plenty of spicy barbecue sauce on a toasted brioche bun.
  • Serve hot.

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