Disease concerns, jurisdiction debate | Government departments debate whether to classify bison as wildlife or cattle
Michelle Young hopes she is nearly over the last hurdle as she tries to establish the first bison herd in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Last week, she was waiting to hear if the province’s wildlife department wanted her to build an eight-foot game fence or if she could use a high-tensile electric fence.
Once that decision is made, 15 yearlings from the Ponoka, Alta., ranch of Mark and Tina Stewart should be on their way to their new home on the southwest coast of the island in the Bay St. George area.
It’s a long road for the bison, but it’s already been a two-and-a-half year journey for Young.
The single mother of boys aged four and five was looking for a business venture that could support the family.
“I knew I didn’t want to do cows or pigs or sheep, something traditional,” she said.
“I wanted something that was going to be low maintenance.”
She was attracted to the healthy meat product, the ability to sell the whole animal and the opportunity to raise bison organically.
Young didn’t grow up on a farm but has worked since a teenager at dairies, vegetable farms and most recently a local butcher shop.
She also has an aboriginal background, and while bison are not native to Newfoundland, she said they have a cultural significance.
She started the project by researching her idea and then approached the provincial government.
One of the main concerns to emerge was the possible introduction of disease that could affect the province’s moose population.
Then there was the question of which department is responsible.
Bison are listed as livestock in animal health legislation.
“Natural resources regards them as livestock, and they consider raising buffalo on the same line as raising cattle,” said Young.
“But I have to go through the department of wildlife to get my permit to import. It’s a real head scratcher because after they’ve signed this piece of paper saying I can bring animals in, they don’t have anything else to do with them.”
As well, officials weren’t confident of the market for bison on the East Coast and weren’t sure about Young and her ability to be a bison rancher.
She spent 10 weeks working at the Stewart ranch last year, learning about their wood bison and what is involved in raising them.
She said that experience has made her more confident that she can spearhead the development of a new industry in Newfoundland.
The idea of bison on the island isn’t new. The species was introduced as a wild ruminant to Brunette Island off the Burin Peninsula in the 1960s but didn’t survive.
However, Young’s plan to treat them as a domestic farm animal, as they are in other provinces, should make her plan more successful.
She has 137 acres along the Trans-Canada Highway just outside Heatherton, where she intends to implement a rotational grazing system to keep feed costs down as much as possible.
Hay is available and shortages are uncommon, she said.
The initial herd of 15 should grow to about 40 breeding females over the years. Slaughter can be done at her former workplace, Loch Leven Slaughterhouse.
Young said her business, known as JNJ Bison Co., would benefit the slaughterhouse because it operates only about half the year during moose hunting season.
“Everybody’s excited to see it happen,” she said. “Rural communities are disappearing everywhere, and they are excited to see something new, especially the tourism aspect.”
Young found a veterinarian who is originally from Saskatchewan and has experience with bison.
She has approached restaurants, particularly in St. John’s, and chefs are interested in a steady supply of locally raised bison.
Young said many people from Western Canada who work in Newfoundland would appreciate being able to get a good quality bison burger or steak.
She thinks the locals would like it, too.
“It tastes more like beef and it cooks like moose,” she said. “It should be a walk in the park for anybody here on the island because if you know how to cook up a moose steak, you know how to cook up a bison.”
Young said 90 percent of the province’s food is imported.
“Just for food security, you’d think the government and everybody would be excited about starting a new industry here.”
Young was able to buy her calves using a gift from her mother. She said she would gladly accept investment from others, particularly those with bison industry experience.
She hopes to be able to tap into aboriginal business start-up programs, as well as Growing Forward programs.
She didn’t qualify for funding the last two years because the provincial government didn’t recognize her as a new entrant. She said that’s because she had no farming experience and or agricultural education.
“Apparently you have to have lots of experience and lots of financing behind you,” she said.
The high cost of starting the venture and dealing with the many regulatory issues have been draining. Young has been on a self-employment benefit program for the last year.
“I’m tired of that. I want a job that I can go to every day and that I can enjoy and have my children involved. Hopefully, I’ll be raising future bison farmers.”
She hopes the animals will be on their way by the end of September.