Jackson Hole Buffalo Meat Co.: From Daydream to Dream Job
When Dan Marino was 14, his family drove through Jackson, Wyoming on a summer road trip. "We came in through Togwotee Pass in the north," he remembers. "I saw the Snow King ski resort, and I tapped my mom on the shoulder and said, 'I'm moving here.' "
He never said another word about that daydream until he graduated from high school. That's when he loaded up his 1966 Mustang with everything he owned. "My mom said, 'Where on earth are you going?' I said, 'Jackson Hole,' and I never looked back," says Marino, now 53.
Making a living in a resort town wasn't simple. For years, Marino ran a power washing business, cleaning everything from log homes to commercial kitchen stove hoods. And he worked part-time cutting steaks and filleting fish at the now-shuttered Cadillac Grille, a popular restaurant on Jackson's historic town square. He met his wife, Suzanne, there. She was an owner and chef.
Then in 1997, Suzanne saw a tiny classified ad in the local newspaper. The Jackson Hole Buffalo Meat Co., founded in 1947, was for sale.
"It was the perfect fit," Suzanne says of the company. It seemed to epitomize Dan's love of Jackson, the nearby Teton Mountains and the broad valleys cut by the Snake River. "He's just so passionate about this place."
They bought the business, which sold buffalo jerky as well cuts of game meat out of a small storefront and via mail order, and set out to see if they could combine business with the love of the land.
Where the Buffalo Roam
Turns out that the Marinos ended up loving the buffalo, not just the land they called home. The more they learned about the animals, technically the American bison, the more fascinated they grew.
Bison will go through almost any barrier, even barbed wire, and can jump a 6-foot fence from a standing position. While they weigh up to 2,200 pounds, they can run up to 35 mph and are powerful swimmers. "They are spectacular to see," Dan says.
Their prowess adds a new level of meaning to the phrase "where the buffalo roam," he adds, explaining that the massive animals wander "anywhere they want to."
Most of the United States and parts of Canada were once the perfect fit for the American bison with its tall-grass prairies and ample water supply. Millions of them roamed for thousands of years from New York to Idaho and from the Yukon Territories to the Gulf of Mexico.
For the Plains Indians, the huge herds were a source of food and shelter. They ate the meat and used the hides for teepees and clothing. But instead of forcing bison to follow them -- as Europeans had done when they domesticated cattle -- Native Americans followed the herds.
The animals also helped make the Plains Indians a formidable enemy to the U.S. government and the country's plans for westward expansion. So throughout the 1800s, a campaign of extermination began, and an estimated 50 million buffalo were killed.
"They did it to put stress on the population of the Native Americans," Marino says. "Take away their food source, take away their shelter source, take away their livelihood, and you can control them."
By the early 1900s, all that remained of America's bison was a herd of an estimated 25 animals protected in the confines of Yellowstone National Park about 60 miles northwest of Jackson.
From that decimated base, the American bison began to come back in the mid- to late 20th century. Today, there are enough bison, often farm-raised, to supply firms like Jackson Hole Buffalo Co., which processes about 350 to 400 animals a year. The bison population now is in the several hundred thousands, including wild and farmed herds.
While far eclipsed by the multibillion dollar beef industry, Dan says bison is a good alternative to cattle for a number of reasons. Cattle are content standing in one spot and "buzz the grass to the ground," he says. "Bison always leave grass instead of destroying the ecosystem. They're just easier on the environment."
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