PASSIONS & TARGETS: FROM CITY SLICKER TO BISON RANCHER by David Lefler

This article is part of our first-ever EPIC Impact Journal. For more on this groundbreaking publication and how to get your hands on one, click here

Nothing about Sarah Gleason’s appearance or background screams ‘rancher’ to the casual onlooker. To start, she’s a woman — a young one, at that. It doesn’t take an industry expert  to recognize how male-dominated the ranching world is. It’s not exactly in her genes, either. “I’d have to go back generations to find the last producer or farmer in my family. I don’t even know who that would be, to be honest,” she admits.

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None of that matters, though. When you start looking in the right places — like her ambition, drive, and ‘who gives a shit what you think’ attitude  — it’s clear Sarah was meant to run bison. And if you need more proof than that, just check the tags on her herd: they read “Gleason Bison.” But to appreciate Sarah’s rare standing in the world of bison producers, you need to rewind back a few years, when her dream of ranching was still a revelry.

Sarah was born in Fort Myers, Florida in the mid-1980’s and moved to Denver, Colorado at age two. The daughter of a healthcare professional with an eye for the outdoors, she was always in the garden planting vegetables and flowers as a child. She loved riding horses — so much that she often pretended she was on one when she wasn’t out at the stables. From an early age, it was obvious she wasn’t meant for white-collar work.

She was also one hell of an athlete. By age 12, Sarah was training at the Olympic Training Center with the Colorado Springs Swim Team. A few years later, she swam at Texas Christian University and got her degree in Political Science. After graduating, she spent the summer river guiding in Buena Vista, Colorado and the winter in Keystone, Colorado. During this time, she met her future husband, Mike. They loved it out there, but Sarah felt like something was missing. “Those of us who are very goal-oriented, especially lifelong athletes like myself, need to have a mission,” she explained. “I was searching for a higher calling.”

So she hopped in the car with Mike and a handful of possessions — including their dog and cat — to head to Washington, D.C. to put her degree to work. It was the first of many leaps of faith she’d take in her pursuit of purpose. But after working for a congressman from 2008-2010 and then leapfrogging to the Marine Fish Conservation Network to help with fishing industry and conservation policy, Sarah’s flame was extinguished. She needed to get outside and venture off the beaten path. “I realized working in an office all day, every day was not the thing for me,” she said. “I had to find a way to be outside.”

Desperate for a change of pace, Sarah and Mike moved to Durango, Colorado, a small city nestled in the southwest corner of the state. She immediately fell in love with its natural beauty and escapability. Invigorated by her newfound access to nature, Sarah realized her officeless dream job laid in the pasture, assumedly with horses — until Mike gave her an even wilder idea: bison. “I thought it was a ridiculous idea at first,” Sarah admitted. “How was I, a 26-year-old girl with no livestock or agricultural background, supposed to raise these enormous, ferocious beasts? It seemed insane.”

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But the more Sarah thought about it, the more the idea stuck. She ran with it, joining the National Bison Association (NBA) and inhaling their Bison 101 handbook. Things got more serious when she started contacting producers from the NBA registry to ask if she could check out their operations. She wasn’t afraid to ask questions or get dirty — she made it her business to know every bison owner in Colorado. “I’m sure it seemed absurd to people when I told them I was going to become a bison rancher,” Sarah said. “But to be frank, I didn’t care. I knew that’s what I was going to do.”

The same ruthless competitive spirit that had propelled Sarah to athletic prestige was fueling her bison chase. Things really took a turn once Mike got into medical school and they moved up to Denver in 2012. By then Sarah was working in the marketing department at Whole Foods, but she was infatuated with the world of bison. She had visited several ranches and had participated in multiple roundups at that point, but she realized she’d have to hurdle a couple massive obstacles to complete her mission. “It dawned on me that if you don’t have livestock or land and aren’t independently wealthy, it’s incredibly challenging to get into the bison industry,” she said.

Sarah had none of those things, but she didn’t take it as a hint to quit. Instead, she pushed back even harder. And finally, after years of researching, learning, hoping, and networking, her saving grace came in the form of a South Dakota ranching powerhouse named Mimi Hillenbrand. It was the summer of 2015 — only a few months after Sarah had started as the Director of Marketing at The Savory Institute — and Mimi, the owner of 777 Bison Ranch and a holistic management guru, was visiting their offices. Sarah had read all about Hillenbrand and knew that if anyone could help her break into the bison game, it was Mimi. So she went for it. “I basically pulled her aside and expressed my desire to be a bison producer and asked if she’d consider running animals for me,” she explained. “I had to give it a shot.”

sg4-1.jpgMimi (L) and Sarah (R) after working their first roundup together in 2015          

There’s typically not much incentive for ranchers to run other people’s herds on their land. With resources always at a premium, they usually need to conserve them for their own animals and operations. But after thinking it over a bit, Mimi invited Sarah up to work the fall roundup with the 777 crew. A month and a half later, she invited Sarah up again — this time for the Custer State Park and 777 auctions. That’s when things got real. Alongside her trusted ranch manager and bison guru, Moritz Espy, Mimi informed Sarah that she wanted to help her get into the industry and would be happy to run animals for her. Furthermore, Mimi wanted to become her mentor. “Sarah’s enthusiasm was a little overwhelming at first, but how can one resist a person with that much passion for something?” Mimi reflected. “Agriculture needs new, young, driven, passionate people and they need help getting their feet in the door. I look forward to the day Sarah has her own ranch.” Sarah added: “I’d been clawing to get into the bison world for six years without knowing how things would ever work out. And suddenly, it hit me: it finally happened. I’ll never forget that moment.”

Things progressed quickly from there. After mulling things over, Sarah decided her best bet was to commit to a plan where she’d own a sizable herd after four years. And in October of 2015 — a little over a year after the two met — she purchased 15 pregnant bison, putting her on track to own 30-40 by 2020. Gleason Bison, LLC was officially in business. Becoming a legitimate bison producer changed everything for Sarah. She finally has skin in the game — and she’s not going to stand idly while her herd grows at 777. She and Mimi have continued to grow as friends and ranching companions, galvanizing her to spread the word on holistic management and grass-feeding bison. “Truly changing this industry will require a balancing act between consumer demand, producer adaptation, and patience,” she said. “But we can do it. I’m going to fight to restore our soils and grasslands and make grass-fed bison the norm.”

There’s still plenty more milestones left for Sarah and Gleason Bison. Atop her to-do list: finding a ranch for her incoming herd, which will be paid off in just a few years. From there, she’ll be entirely responsible for her animals for the first time — a challenge that she relishes. Looking back, this experience has taught Sarah as much about people as it has about animals. She hopes to help others someday the way Mimi and the 777 Bison Ranch crew helped her. “For anyone else out there who has big dreams, in agriculture or elsewhere, just go for it,” she said. “Relentlessly and unapologetically chase your goals.”

And as for the ranchers who laughed in her face or wrote her off for daring to become a female bison rancher: “They can come out to my roundup and work my animals.”

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