POLSON — If you’re not sure what you’re looking at, the peaceful, shaggy creatures roaming the bucolic green pastures of Living Diamond Ranch resemble a bizarre, mutated cross of perhaps Scottish highland cattle and North American bison.
They are in fact Tibetan yaks, and Lawrence Richards has been raising a herd here in the shadow of the Mission Mountains since 1988, producing award-winning breeding stock and yak meat for local grocery stores and restaurants.
Back in 1996, Richards took a few of his yaks on a wild journey to South America to provide photogenic animals for a few scenes for Brad Pitt’s movie “Seven Years in Tibet.” One of the bulls got restless during the flight, and a pilot told Richards he had to tranquilize the animal before it jabbed a horn through the fuselage.
“Brad Pitt was on the cover of Time magazine, and Time magazine referred to me as an eccentric yak breeder from Montana,” Richards recalled. “They didn’t even mention my name. The yaks only got a few seconds in the film.”
Now, he has about 70 of the long-haired animals, and they’re affectionately given names like Rimrock, Hot Rocks, Kid Rock, Halle Berry, Triple Berry and Blackberry.
“Rimrock is a mature breeding bull, he’s a fabulous producer,” Richards says as he gently feeds the 1,400-pound beast a twig with leaves. “He’s a prime specimen. His son Rolex is probably the best bull in the whole country.”
Richards takes special pride in producing breeding bulls, which he sells to customers around the country — especially back East — for upward of $12,000 recently. Richards is quick to point out that maintaining a herd isn’t a financially lucrative endeavor.
“This isn’t a get rich quick scheme,” he laughs. “People fall in love with the calves, and that’s what happened to me.”
Richards, who started his career in the scientific instrument industry, saw his first yaks grazing near Interstate 80 in Nebraska in 1986, first assuming they were black cows wandering in the woods. He knew instantly that they were going to be a huge part of his life. He bought property on the Flathead Reservation the next year, and purchased seven bull and heifer pairs the following year.
Richards said his yaks are descended from the herds the people of the Tibetan plateau domesticated more than 4,000 years ago.
“Nobody knows exactly how they did it,” he explained. “Some people believe they bred them with cattle to domesticate them. Maybe they just hung around them long enough.”
There is still an endangered population of completely wild yaks, bos mutus — recognized as either a separate species or a subspecies, depending on who you talk to — in the Himalaya region of central Asia. Those animals are much larger — by as much as 1,000 pounds. Richards’ yaks — bos grunniens — take about seven years to mature and can weigh as much as 1,700 pounds.
Richards said he has been extremely careful with breeding, testing his animals and tracing their lineage, to make sure none of his yaks have been crossbred with cattle. Richards said yaks were first introduced to Europeans mainly via zoos, and from there they made their way to Canada for “drive through” wildlife viewing operations. They are now becoming more popular for hobby ranchers in the U.S. because they are more docile than bison, intelligent and produce great-tasting meat and high-quality wool.
But that doesn’t mean you should walk right up and pet a bull.
“They can charge,” Richards said, taking a step back from Rimrock. “You are talking a bull with horns. A bull is a bull in any species. At any moment he might decide he don’t like you. That’s how people get in trouble with bovine animals. They trust the bull. We have great respect for the power of these animals.”
He said he’s worked hard to make sure his bloodlines are pure.
“Our animals may have some small percentage of cattle in them based on something that happened in Europe or Canada, but these are yaks, not crosses,” Richards said. “The cattle characteristics are very obvious, and we don’t have any crossbreds anymore. These are all DNA verified.”
Richards formed the International Yak Association in the '90s and now sits on the board of directors and is on the genomics committee, which works with the University of California Davis to detect hybridization with cattle and exclude it from breeding.
“We’ve become quite sophisticated,” he said. “If we allow new animals into the registration they have to prove they have no cattle integration in them. We want the breeding stock to be pure.”
He also said that although the wild animals are adapted to extremely high altitudes, his animals do very well in the Montana climate.
“The higher and drier the climate, the better for them,” he said. “They definitely can live in mountain states. This early hot spring we’re having is not ideal. When I first moved here you never saw temperatures above 90 until August. Now it gets over 100 in May. Maybe we’ll have to move to Iceland.”
A lack of understanding about internal parasites may have contributed to many people believing yaks can’t survive outside of the Himalaya, he said.
Of course, the animals love the snow, and Richards doesn’t even need a barn in the winter.
Calving season started in April, and he now has about 20 babies on his property. He didn’t lose a single one this spring, and a few more are on the way.
“It’s later than it should be because the early heat shuts down the bulls,” he said. “Hopefully this early heat will not continue.”
Much like bison, with which they share an ancient common ancestor, yaks communicate by grunting. The calves are curious but a little shy, and powerfully thirsty for their mother’s milk.
He only butchers one animal a year and keeps half for himself, but his yak burger is available at the Good Food Store in Missoula. The main focus of his ranch is producing breeding stock. Between here and Vermont, Richards said there are 17 farms and ranches that have purchased his animals.
Richards often points to how Ted Turner once said that to save bison, people need to eat more of them. He believes yak meat consumption will ride the coattails of the booming bison meat industry and keep increasing as people realize it’s great-tasting meat — similar to farm-raised elk — and leaner than beef. However, he said it doesn’t make much sense for him to feed an animal for three years to get $3,000 worth of meat when he can sell a bull calf at nine months old for up to $15,000.
He’s won several first-place awards for his yaks at the National Western Stock Show in Denver, and that’s where he meets most of his buyers.
Although Richards views his yaks as livestock and not pets, he shows a genuine emotional connection to them.
“They’re a little mischievous,” he said. “They’re just wonderful animals.”