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Billings, Mont., food bank buys 3,200 pounds of bison meat

By Brett French -- Billings Gazette, Mont.

BILLINGS, Mont. (MCT) - The slaughter this winter of almost one-third of Yellowstone National Park's wild bison has benefited tribes and food banks across Montana and other states, which have received an estimated 600,000 pounds of meat.

''Meat is the Holy Grail of food banks,'' said James Dodge, food resource developer for the Montana Food Bank Network in Missoula. ''If meat is under $1 a pound, we do everything we can to get it.''

Although recognizing that the slaughter of the park's bison is not an action everyone supports, Dodge said the food bank recently purchased 15,000 pounds of bison meat, all of which is ground and packaged into 2-pound chubs, for 42 cents a pound. The food bank tacks on another 4 cents per pound to distribute the meat to its 189 agencies throughout the state. The meat should be available in May.

The meat comes at an opportune time, Dodge said. Food banks were hit hard in February by the federal recall of 143 million pounds of beef from a California processing plant. Montanans are also struggling with higher gas and grocery prices.

In light of the situation, the challenge of distributing 15,000 pounds of meat is ''a good problem to have,'' Dodge said.

The Billings Food Bank also benefited, collecting 3,200 pounds of bison meat through the state's program at a cost of 55 cents a pound, compared to store prices that can run more than $4 a pound for ranch-raised bison.

''It's very, very high-protein meat and has less fat content than beef,'' said Sheryle Shandy, the food bank's executive director. ''And coming from the park, there are no pesticides, no herbicides and no chemicals.''

Although charities and nonprofits benefit, Montana tribes have the first claim to bison that are slaughtered.

''We've had more than 350 requests from tribal organizations that expressed an interest in bison meat, heads and hides,'' said Steve Merritt, a spokesman for the Montana Department of Livestock, which oversees the slaughter.

Most of the tribes process the meat themselves, said Rob Tierney, bison programs coordinator for the Department of Livestock. The bison heads and hides are donated as well.

''We haven't had a problem getting rid of the bison,'' Tierney said. ''Most tribes receive them more than once.''

He noted that tribes in Michigan, North Dakota and Wyoming had also received meat.

Meat processors used by the Montana Department of Livestock, which oversees the slaughter, have also kept busy at a slow time of the year with the influx of extra work.

Brian Engle of Pioneer Meats in Big Timber said that instead of laying off a worker during the winter, he has had to fill an extra two and a half to three positions to keep up with the extra work. The staff of four has slaughtered 258 bison so far this year.

''We're busier than we would've been if we weren't processing bison,'' he said.

He also said that bison are ''10 times'' harder to handle and much harder on the processing plant's facilities and people. He also worried that bison advocates would target his business for vandalism. For that reason, the Department of Livestock wouldn't identify the processing facilities it has agreements with in the state, instead identifying the six facilities in Montana by the towns in which they're located - Columbus, Butte, Sheridan, Big Timber, Roundup and Ronan. The U.S. Department of Agriculture also uses a facility in Rigby, Idaho.

At last count, 1,422 bison had been shipped to slaughter in Montana. Of these, 404 were bulls, 686 were cows and 308 were yearlings. The state could not account for the sex or age of the other 24 bison. Another 290 bison were removed by tribal and state hunters, bringing the total number of bison removed from the park this winter to 1,712. An estimated 700 animals have died over the winter, putting the current population estimate at 2,300 bison.

The Department of Livestock estimated the live weight of the bison at almost 800,000 pounds, with the processed weight about 80 percent of that.

The state pays for the shipping, slaughter, skinning and quartering of the bison with a $535,000 grant from the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. The state had no accounting of how much of the grant has already been spent.

''The budget is very tight at this point,'' Tierney said.

Copyright (c) 2008, Billings Gazette, Mont. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.