Matthew stands stoically, silently gazing around his domain as he contemplates life and the world as he knows it. Surrounded by his adoring family, he eats his lunch, seemingly oblivious to the strangers approaching him. But when you're the king of all you survey, you don't have a lot to worry about - especially if you're only 7 years old.
Matthew is the biggest breeder elk at the L3 Ranches in Blanchard, a holistic bison and elk ranch nestled in the conifer-covered mountains of North Idaho. It was started three years ago by Spokane entrepreneur and world-class hunter George Lawrence III, who you may remember as the cowboy on the Consumer Auto Liquidators commercials.
Lawrence's vision behind L3 Ranches has been to create a local, sustainable supply of bison, a product that is in high demand and short supply.
Ranch manager Christian Starr and his family live on the 750-acre ranch, and have been instrumental in its development.
"When he bought the property, the buildings were falling down," says Starr. "There were varmints living in our house. We fell through the floors."
Visitors would never know it by looking at the place now. A cozy home for Starr and his family, numerous steel buildings and a luxurious lodge and bunkhouse for Lawrence and his guests are clustered at the edge of the fields where the bison and elk roam.
Starr is a Spokane native and graduate of University High School and the Community Colleges of Spokane. He was studying psychology and biology at Eastern Washington University and working construction when his father discovered that Lawrence was looking for a manager. Although Starr had no background in ranching, he and his wife wanted to raise their family in the country. So both parties prayed about it, and Lawrence hired him soon after.
"It is a dream job for me," Starr said.
With 260 bison and 110 elk, the L3 Ranches are one of the largest - if not the largest- sources of bison in the Northwest. This has been their first year of commercial production; locals can find their meat at many health food grocers and specialty meat shops.
The stock is managed as a meat source, but the ranch also offers hunting opportunities. Clients can purchase the meat or pay to harvest the animals themselves. Hunt prices vary depending on a number of issues including the animal's age and gender, and the size of rack (elk).
This is Matthew's last year as a breeder bull. Next year, he'll be moved into the hunting stock. At eight or nine years old, elk antlers begin to deteriorate, and since the value of the bulls is in their racks, it will be time for him to serve another purpose.
Most elk hunts run from $1,500 for cows to $2,500 for a small bull. Matthew, however, would be a $15,000 hunt due to the size of his antlers. Bison hunts, on the other hand, are the same price for cows and bulls, since both have horns. Or you can purchase the meat at the same price wholesale.
Elk antler velvet (the soft layer of highly vascularised skin that covers the antlers and is shed in the summer when the antlers have fully developed) has been recognized for centuries for its medicinal benefits. L3 is taking advantage of that market, collecting and selling both the velvet and the antlers that the elk shed.
Out in the fields, the bison are eating their lunch, too. They're 100 percent grass-fed, and a glance at their healthy coats shows that it's working.
"We tried to feed the elk with alfalfa only, but their health wasn't as good," says Starr. "We couldn't keep them healthy." So the elk are fed Purina pellets that consist primarily of vitamins and minerals. Each elk gets a pound of pellets a day - except Matthew.
"Matthew gets a few more pounds because he's a hog and doesn't share," says Starr.
Lawrence bought the property three years ago and introduced the first bison soon afterward. The elk joined them a year later. He purchased the animals from operations in South Dakota, Montana, Washington and Idaho - in some cases, taking entire herds from owners who were getting out of the business.
Likeable is an 8-year-old bison. He came from Athol and was the dominant bull until recently; Thunder has now taken over that role. Likeable is almost blind, so isn't nearly as friendly as he was when his vision was better. Thunder and Easy came from Big Timber, Mont., and were the first two bison Lawrence bought. (They only name the breeder bulls.)
The bison are generally friendly, although the animals aren't treated as pets. They are raised in a positive, stress-free environment. Starr doesn't use a four-wheeler to move the herds, so they're not scared of machines.
"The bison do the work themselves," he says. "I don't have to chase them; they just come to the fence."
The animals are brought into pens when they need to be worked on, such as receiving injections, examinations, etc. The pens must be well-built to sustain the damage inflicted on them - L3's are solid steel. The bison run full-force into them, said Starr, and most fences can't withstand the punishment.
"They can run through most any fence we put up when they want to," says Starr. "Some of them have really hard heads."
Aside from the actual ranching operation, the Lawrence family has built facilities to accommodate church retreats and hunting seminars, as well as hosting hunters. The bunkhouse is far more lavish than the name implies, featuring a great room with a floor-to-ceiling wood-burning fireplace built with rock collected on the grounds. There are private bedrooms and a dormitory-style room, as well as comfortable living and kitchen areas.
Animal mounts are displayed in both the lodge and the bunkhouse from Lawrence's personal collection, which numbers in the hundreds. He has multiple hunting world records, including the Ram Grand Slam (five different breeds of sheep) in three weapon classes: bow, rifle and muzzleloader. He's currently pursuing the same title with a handgun, and just recently returned from bow-hunting polar bears in Canada.
Lawrence didn't build the ranch as an investment, according to Starr. He views it as a place to relax, enjoy nature, and be pampered.
From the look of the bison and elk that live there, the ranch is very good at pampering its residents, resulting in high-quality meat for the consumer. And considering the grandeur of the lodge, bunkhouse and other facilities, imagine how well it must treat its guests.
For more information on the L3 Ranches, contact Christian Starr at (509) 999-8367 or L3ranches@gmail.com, or visit www.whybison.com.
A group of young bull elk watch the activity near their pen. There are currently 110 elk on the 750-acre ranch that are available as a meat source, but hunting opportunities are also possible.
Christian Starr feeds the ranch’s oldest bison, Likeable, right, who is mostly blind. Thunder, center, has taken the older bison’s place as the dominant bull.
The bunkhouse at L3 Ranch is adorned with dozens of mounts and provides hunters with a northwest lodge ambiance.