Economics drive ranchers into buffalo-hunt business

MARQUETTE, Kan. — It’s bitterly cold on the prairie as Lewis Mitchell lives his dream of hunting buffalo.

Associated Press Billings Gazette

But for Vance Hopp, who owns the buffalo, it’s more about dollars than dreams. Turns out, it’s more profitable now to sell the rights to shoot and butcher a buffalo than it is to sell the animal at auction.

"It’s really the nostalgia of going in and shooting a buffalo, that’s about what it amounts to," said Mitchell, the crunch of frozen grass underfoot the only sound except for the wind.

He was stalking a half-ton, 2-year-old bull in a fenced pasture where Hopp operates his buffalo hunts about 10 miles northwest of this central Kansas town.

Mitchell, of Hutchinson, fired twice from about 250 yards with his high-powered rifle at the shaggy silhouette atop a rise.

The buffalo flinched and circled the area, nearing Hopp, who fired the fatal shot. He feared the wounded animal would crash through the barbed-wire fence and head for the nearby woods.

While he didn’t bag the buffalo, Mitchell enjoyed the hunt.

"Oh yeah, at least we got out and did it. It’s better than sitting at home and wishing you had done it all your life," he said.

Hopp is counting on a lot more hunters like Mitchell.

Like other buffalo ranchers faced with declining market prices and rising overhead, Hopp figured he could get more selling hunts than selling the animals he manages for his father and sister.

"Prices haven’t been that good and there was just too much expense, especially with the drought," Hopp said. "We were going to sell the herd off, but we couldn’t sell the big bulls, so we thought this would be a good way to get rid of them."

Since December, Hopp has sold some 30 hunts, ranging from $1,000 to $1,500 apiece. He said the best hunting is December through February when buffaloes have their heavy winter coats.

"It turned into a lot better deal than we thought it would. We were surprised at the reception we got," Hopp said.

Around the state, buffalo hunts range from $500 to $2,500, depending on the type of buffalo and services offered, such as food, lodging or guides.

Aside from being a trophy, buffalo have meat that is leaner than beef. An 1,100-pound buffalo will yield about 400 pounds of edible meat.

While there are no firm numbers, the National Bison Association says buffalo hunts are on the rise in Kansas and other states, including Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Colorado and Texas.

"Just about everybody who is raising buffalo is putting on some sort of hunt because the market isn’t worth a damn now," said Todd Griffin, who’s in his second year of selling hunts near Minneapolis, in north-central Kansas.

Dave Carter, executive director of the National Bison Association, said buffalo prices started dropping in 1998-99, sometimes by as much as 70 percent. He said that over the past decade the buffalo numbers in the United States have tripled to about 300,000.

The Kansas Buffalo Association boasts one of the nation’s largest buffalo auctions. Dick Gehring, the group’s sale chairman, said rising supply combined with the drought and the sluggish economy have hit sale prices.

At the association’s December sale in Salina, the average price for 2-year-old bulls was $409, compared to $768 in 2000. Carter said that price drop is in line with what’s happening elsewhere.

Hunting buffalo is older than the United States. American Indians did it before settlers all but eliminated the vast herds. Gehring said hunting buffalo on private land also isn’t new.

Copyright © The Billings Gazette, a division of Lee Enterprises.

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