Donation helps establish bison program

Bison producers Armin and Rita Mueller are donating $4 million to Lakeland College to help the school buy land and establish a new program.

The family’s contribution will allow students at Lakeland to study and raise bison in a ranch setting.

“This is really exciting, and we are very honoured and humbled by this donation,” said Josie Van Lent, dean of agricultural sciences with the college, in an interview after the donation was announced on Feb. 25.

“It’s a bit surreal and overwhelming,” she said.

The Mueller family, which owns Canadian Rangeland Bison and Elk, made the donation because they believe the bison industry is important and want future generations to be inspired by it.

Armin said he hopes the new course will encourage students to raise bison when they establish their own operations.

“For the students to learn more about bison and gain hands-on experience is going to be fascinating for them,” he said in a news release. “It would be great if 10, 20 or 30 years down the road, we see a lot more bison in the fields again.”

The Muellers are originally from Switzerland but have lived near Bentley, Alta., for 40 years.

They ran a dairy operation for 20 years, transitioning to bison in 2000.

“I’ve had a lifelong fascination with bison. I love everything about them,” Armin said.

Lakeland will use the funds to buy grassland and establish a bison herd. The school anticipates offering a bison production course by fall 2021.

Geoff Brown, the associate dean of agricultural sciences at Lakeland College, said the course will be part of the school’s student-managed ranch.

The ranch, similar to the student-managed farm, is a new addition that will see students work with the animals on pasture. It integrates social, environmental and economical best practices.

“With carbon sequestration, there is a renewed interest in range and grass management,” Brown said. “How we are stewarding pasture is important, and this student-managed ranch is a great opportunity.”

The bison program is a start to the student-managed ranch concept, but it could be expanded to a multi-species system, he added.

“I think the focus for now is on the bison,” he said. “We’re really thankful to Rita and Armin, and I think this is great for the bison industry.”

The program opens the window for Lakeland to partner with other organizations to conduct research.

Van Lent said partnerships could be with the Canadian Bison Association, other post-secondary institutions and industry partners.

“Certainly, to be respectful, there are other post secondaries embedded in bison research, and I think, through that, we will have either ownership of a herd or access to a herd,” she said. “We are looking forward to working with partners. There will be opportunities there.”

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