Where the Bison RoamFeb 28, 2022 09:00AM ● By Karey Solomon
Chris Comstock and his father Mike began the Mud Creek Bison Ranch on Robie Road in Savona, New York, in 2013 with four animals. “That’s when we said goodbye to family vacations,” Chris jokes. Through a vigorous breeding and brokering program, they’re now up to 300 bison. Mike’s goal is to keep building the herd until they have at least 1,000 calves every year. They’re also selling bison across the United States. Eventually, he hopes to re-introduce bison to the Adirondacks area they once called home, back when parts of upstate New York were the Wild West.
Lightning, a rare white bison—though his adult years have mellowed him to pale gold—gets to his feet to keep an eye on us from a distance as we drive slowly past the enclosure where some of the younger animals live. The light colors of eight youngsters mark them as Lightning’s offspring. If he decides we’re a threat, he’ll posture aggressively, then herd the others to a safe distance. We stop and the animals stare at us curiously. Apparently, we’re here for their amusement. When we start moving again, Lightning stands down while keeping us in his sights, with what Chris Guild calls “the death stare.”
In their shaggy, five-layered winter coats, they look soft and cuddly, but make no mistake—these are wild animals with no intention of becoming domesticated. They may be observed by visitors, and they’re often interested enough in humans to spend time watching us just as raptly, but they’re not to be fed or petted. Treating them with caution is essential for everyone’s safety. When Chris Comstock goes into the pasture to deliver hay or check on animals, he’s in a utility task vehicle with a reinforced cabin.
Self-guided tours resume mid-April from Thursday through Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. The cost is $5 per car load. Like any tour involving wild animals, observers stay in the car. “The bison are fun to watch,” says Chris Guild, who sold his auto-repair business to join the enterprise as a co-owner this January.
After a tour—or before it if they’re hungry—visitors may visit the gift shop stocked with a variety of bison-related merchandise from snack sticks (bison jerky) to wearables, bison art, even yarn spun from bison and alpaca fleece, and a few items knit from the yarn by Chris Comstock’s mom, Lin. Meat is also available for sale.
“Bison meat is leaner than fish or chicken, with more protein than beef. It also has a more mineral flavor and less fat than beef,” Chris Comstock says. The farm butchers only a few of the young males annually. The Comstock family—and now Guild’s family too—is sold on the flavor. During the height of the pandemic, the Comstocks were eating bison meat from their freezer instead of shopping. When Chris decided to grill beef steaks as a treat for his children, his daughter complained her meat “tasted funny” and refused to eat it. Having gotten accustomed to the good stuff, there was no going back.
“Bison carries its flavor in the protein, not in the fat,” Chris Comstock says. “We’ve modified beef so much, we get our flavor from the fat, like in a well-marbled steak. But bison is lean.” In illustration, he compares a bison burger to a chopped beef patty. Before grilling, you’d start with a beef patty significantly larger than the bun it will be served on in order to have the burger not get lost on the bun. But with bison, the size you start with is very close to the size of the finished burger.
The bison are mostly grass- and hay-fed, with occasional treats of apples, sugar beets, and past-its-prime produce donated to the farm by local growers and food pantries. On New Year’s Day, the bison happily feasted on expired-for-human-consumption coleslaw mix.
Groups of up to four who want to extend their adventure and test their mettle can reserve a half-hour session in the “bull cage.” This eight-by-ten-foot cage is locked with participants inside, then brought to the pasture where the bulls graze. It’s an opportunity to get safely eye to eye on the same level as the animals. “It can be intimidating to be that close to such powerful animals,” Chris Guild says.
The barn behind the gift shop, home of a future restaurant on the ranch, currently serves as a workshop where five cabins are being crafted. Later this month they’ll be moved to the 600-acre as-yet-unnamed pasture and woodland farm in nearby Prattsburgh. After babies are born, bison will be moved there where they’ll have more pasture to roam, and campers hiking through the property will be able to enjoy their company—from a respectful distance.
Each cabin and its site will be equipped with furniture, bedding, cooking equipment, a firepit, a propane heater for indoors, and a luxury porta-potty. To retain the wilderness experience, they will not be plumbed or have electricity. “It’s not going to be a campground,” Chris Guild says. “There will be no driving around. We’ll escort you to the cabins and the parking lot. You’ll see ponds and groomed trails. Around every corner it’s like a different world. It’s geared toward people who want to enjoy nature without having to sleep in a tent on uneven ground.” Cabins, at $225 per night, may be booked on VRBO, Airbnb, and at mudcreekbison.com. The “Frontier of the Southern Tier,” as they call it at Mud Creek, lives again.