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New Babb-area ranch to raise bison for burgers at Wrigley Field


New Babb-area ranch to raise bison for burgers at Wrigley Field

Oct. 25, 2011  

Buffalo meat advocate and billionaire businessman Joe Ricketts is   planning a bison ranch near the Canadian border to supply Chicago's   Wrigley Field, which his family controls. FILE PHOTO

Buffalo meat advocate and billionaire businessman Joe Ricketts is planning a bison ranch near the Canadian border to supply Chicago's Wrigley Field, which his family controls. FILE PHOTO

Written by FRAN HESSER



BABB — A huge herd of bison will be grazing the prairie just south of the Canadian border this spring. That's when Double T Bison Ranch will stock 10,000 acres with 850 head of the big, shaggy animals whose offspring will be destined for meat markets across the country.

Double T Bison Ranch will be situated on private land on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation on both sides of U.S. Highway 89 north of Babb. It will be operated by a parent company called Golden Bison, which is owned by billionaire businessman Joe Ricketts, the founder of Omaha, Neb.-based TD Ameritrade.

The Double T is Golden Bison's first ranch. Golden Bison's sister company, Jackson Fork Ranch, owns a grass-fed bison operation in Wyoming.

Ricketts is a longtime proponent of the health benefits of bison meat, including lower fat and cholesterol. His family is the majority owner of the Chicago Cubs, which serves many bison products at Wrigley Field.

In 2004, Ricketts founded High Plains Bison, a retailer of bison meat. In addition to online and offline sales, High Plains Bison is the official bison vendor at Wrigley Field. Some of the bison products sold there are from animals raised on the Wyoming ranch owned by Ricketts.

Babb's Double T Ranch previously was owned by Rob Tessari of Calgary. Rick Weekes of Babb, who worked for the Double T Ranch for 15 years, said Tessari had the ranch on the market for $3.5 million. Glacier County officials said the sales price is not listed in official documents for agricultural land sales of more than 160 acres.

Tessari bought the ranch in 1997, and the sale of 10,000 acres to Ricketts' company was concluded Sept. 30. Weekes said another 3,000 acres of land also may be leased to the Double T Ranch by two tribal members.

A 6-foot-high perimeter fence is being constructed around the property. The herd, including 800 cows and 50 bulls, will be grazed on three parcels of land. Calves will be born in the early spring, grazed over the summer and sent to pasture in late fall.

The bison herd will be purchased from private sources, and is not connected with the wandering Yellowstone bison that have been the subject of heated controversy in public hearings to establish new grazing areas.

A lot of public opposition to new grazing lands for the Yellowstone bison was voiced at a recent public hearing in Shelby, where local ranchers expressed concern about the animals infecting their cattle herds with brucellosis, a disease that can cause cattle to abort their calves.

Ervin Carlson, buffalo program manager for the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, said his tribe does not see any health threat from the Double T Ranch bison to cattle herds on the reservation.

He said the tribe welcomes the new bison ranch, although he admitted to some unhappiness that the venture is by a nontribal company that will graze the animals on traditional Blackfeet bison land.

"There's a little bit of heartache that the tribe couldn't acquire the land," Carlson said. He said bison have "historical significance" to the Blackfeet Tribe.

"They were our sustenance, our lodging and our food," Carlson said. "Spiritually, they were held in high regard."

He said the head and hides of buffalo still are used in many Native American ceremonies.

Carlson is the president of the Inner Tribal Buffalo Council, a group of 58 tribes across the U.S. that promotes and encourages the renewal of buffalo herds.

The Blackfeet Tribe maintains a herd of approximately 250 bison, which range free at the Blackfeet Reserve on U.S. Highway 2 west of Browning in the summer months and then are moved to winter pasture near Two Medicine.

Some small herds of bison also are located near Browning, with the meat sold on the local market.

Weekes will continue as ranch foreman, assisted by his son Casey Weekes. The elder Weekes previously worked with bison when he helped care for a herd of 400 animals near Augusta.

"I know how to handle them," Weekes said. "You treat them more like sheep. Where one goes, they all go. You don't push them. If you do, they go kind of crazy on you. You don't drive them like you do cattle."

He and his son will work the bison with four-wheelers, not horses. He said there is very little handling of the bison, which mostly graze year-round, although they do need some winter supplementation with hay.

Weekes said bison are ear-tagged, not branded. The cows are vaccinated and pregnancy tested in the late fall in pens that are much stronger and stouter than cattle pens, he said.

In 1975, Ricketts and a few partners formed First Omaha Securities, a retail securities brokerage firm that grew through mergers and acquisitions into TD Ameritrade. This year, Ricketts announced that he would retire from the TD Ameritrade board to concentrate on entrepreneurship and philanthropy.

He also is very active in politics. In 2010, Ricketts led a campaign against special-interest earmarks and wasteful spending by the federal government.

He recently retired and now lives in Little Jackson Hole, Wyo., with his wife of 48 years. He has four grown children.

In October 2009, the Ricketts family acquired a 95 percent controlling interest in Major League Baseball's Chicago Cubs and Wrigley Field, as well as 25 percent of Comcast Sportsnet Chicago.

The Ricketts family represents the eighth ownership group in the 133-year history of the team. Ricketts is not directly involved in the team's operations, but his son, Tom Ricketts, is chairman of the Cubs, and his three other children, Pete, Laura and Todd, are on the board of directors.

High Plains Bison supplies the official lean meat of the Chicago Cubs, including bison hot dogs and bison burgers.

The demand for bison meat nationwide is growing rapidly as consumer demand for a healthier red meat increases.