HOT SPRINGS – Jon Sepp’s first career was testing parachutes for the US military, with more than 800 free falls, 200 low-altitude BASE jumps and numerous serious leg injuries to his credit. He is used to danger and adrenaline. Still, the sight of a 2,200-pound bison chasing him last August spooked him.
“He walked through the metal door,” Sepp recalled. “And I just looked at him and saw him coming after me.”
Sepp, a bison rancher with a herd near Camas Prairie, just south of the town of Hot Springs in western Montana, was being filmed by a German television documentary crew when the accident happened. The animal knocked him to the ground, then came back and gored him by the arm and stomped on him. He suffered a severe concussion, but was able to escape with the help of a ranch hand.
“It was really, really bad,” Sepp recalled. “For a moment, I thought I was going to die.
This incident, and another time when he was trampled in a trailer, did not stop him from loving and respecting animals.
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Sepp and his partner Brittany Masters, owners of Roam Free Ranch, manage a herd of 200 bison that will grow to about 300 after calving season, which begins in late April.
They have found a unique way to make a living from the tens of thousands of pounds of grass-fed meat they harvest every year.
They have created a pre-cooked, ready-to-eat Roam Free bison chili product that is available exclusively at Costco stores in several western US states, including Missoula and Kalispell stores. The products flew off the shelves. Stores may be out soon, but they’re planning another restock later this year.
Roam Free Ranch also offers a line of cured goods and sells cuts of meat locally. Its staff is growing, and Sepp and Masters hope to expand to other stores over the next few years.
“We found a chef who created a really amazing recipe for us,” said Masters, who left a marketing career at aerospace company Boeing to move to Montana. “Even when I try to recreate it at home, I can’t do it like him.”
Masters said it takes a huge logistics company to put a product on Costco’s shelves. They had to find a place big enough to process a large volume of animals, find the right recipe, find a commercial plant to create the product, and convince Costco to put it on their shelves.
“There is no soup factory in Montana, so if anyone wants to start one, let us know,” Masters said.
Masters said they also had to prove they were already distributing the jerky to other stores before Costco accepted the chili.
“They’ve seen other companies come in and collapse and they don’t want to be responsible for that,” she explained.
Sepp and Masters said it was exciting to see people trying out their creation.
“We met people at Costco who were buying it,” Master said.
“We want to interview them, not to be scary, but just to understand what made them realize this,” Sepp added. “We did so well at first and were so excited about the product. I want to know why. Is it the packaging? Is it because it’s bison? Is it a mixture? So we just want to get people’s feedback.
Sepp said he realized there were very few pre-cooked bison products on the market, and he knows busy people are looking for something that can be reheated quickly. Masters said Costco has been selling ground bison for years, but there hasn’t been much innovation.
“We knew there was a buffalo consumer shopping there,” Master said.
She said Costco originally contracted with them for just 5,000 units, but she decided she would have another 5,000 made just in case. Sure enough, the 5,000 sold out well before the three months that Costco had estimated, so the company frantically called them and asked how much more they had.
The couple practice regenerative farming methods, which means they confine their herd to small areas so they intensively graze the grasses down to the ground before moving them.
This, combined with the fact that the bison are constantly fertilizing the soil, triggers an emergency in the grasses and causes them to spread and keep the land healthy. But the practice also requires lots of fencing, so most of their summer is spent building dozens of miles of fencing.
They recently lost a lease on land they had improved for years, and Sepp laments that Montana is one of the last places where ranching can still be even marginally profitable. Development pressure in places like Colorado means prime land is going to builders and wealthy homeowners and there will be fewer and fewer small ranchers.
“We have friends in the bison industry who have lost their lease over the past year,” Master said. “It’s not an uncommon thing.”
Despite his encounter with the angry bull, Sepp is still in love with the bison, as he has been since childhood.
“One year when I was about 4, my mom and dad pulled over and we went out somewhere in Montana and saw some bison,” he recalled. “I always said I was going to raise them when I got older.”
To this day, he still watches in wonder at the massive beasts from the safety of his truck. Looking into the eyes of a young bull, with Camas Prairie way down below, Sepp still has the feeling he had many years ago.
“It never gets old,” he said.
Roam Free Bison Range