By John O’Connell
Intermountain Farm & Ranch
MCCAMMON — The bison at the Perkins ranch have a gait, physical features, a way of interacting with people and other distinguishable traits recognizable to their owners.
So when Robert Perkins was in his living room last year in McCammon, he could positively spot two of his bison on the popular new TV Western “Yellowstone,” starring Kevin Costner.
Robert loaned some of his bison to the show, despite great apprehension about temporarily letting go of them. With the four Perkins kids into adulthood, the bison practically filled their place for Robert, who has been enamored with the animal since visiting Yellowstone National Park as a kid and has tended to his own herd for much of this decade.
“The bison is such an iconic animal for North America,” Robert said. “They meant so much to the early history of the United States, so it’s fascinated me as far as that goes. As far as the ranching of it, I really enjoy it. Each bison has its own personality; they’re usually a herd animal and so they do everything together.”
Robert’s wife, Jenny, has presented full-fledged support in the endeavor, like last year when she mothered a calf named Trooper that lost its mother. Trooper, born on Memorial Day, was predominately bottle fed by Jenny for five months, including every two hours for the first month.
That meant in the dead of June nights, the housewife would have to crawl out of bed and go outdoors to feed Trooper, which was kept in an area next to their garage.
“That was an interesting experience that I’d just as soon not have again,” Jenny said. “That was a lot of work. Brand new baby all over again. It was an animal, instead of a little one.”
On two occasions when she was busy, Robert had to shelter the calf in a trailer in the parking lot of his dentist office and pause what he was doing every couple hours to feed Trooper.
Trooper is one of 44 bison on their 120-acre ranch that features a small hill where their house is perched. Robert works about a 40-hour work week as part owner of four dentistries, but makes time for ranching when he arrives home. He said the animals raise themselves, but feed has to be dispersed, water lines have to be moved and maintenance is required, among other duties.
“It’s been my dream,” Robert said. “It’s lived up to everything that I’ve dreamed of. It’s away from my daily job. It’s relaxing. It’s just really peaceful to be able to work with the animals.”
At the start, Jenny didn’t know that her husband wouldn’t complete his day until after dark, but she has become acclimated to the arrangement and is an enthusiastic and helpful ranch hand.
“Hauling hay, cutting hay, moving hay — it’s all just hard,” Jenny said. “I just wasn’t prepared for the things that I never thought about or even knew about.”
When all of their children were at least of high school age in 2013, the family decided to partake in ranching and raising bison in Lake Shore, Utah, with Robert spearheading the idea. They started with nine bison and immediately made ranching into a business called Diamond P Grassroots Bison.
They sell bison meat, and Jenny has begun leading an agritourism division that is starting small with two June wagon rides with the bison.
“Right now, it’s not something that’s an income producer,” Robert said. “It’s more of a hobby. So that’s the animal that I wanted to concentrate on just because the respect I have for it, and that’s just kind of where it stayed. I don’t really have interest in expanding it a whole lot more. They take all of my time, in a good way.”
The ranch was re-stationed to Idaho four years after they started raising bison. Their McCammon land has trees to shade the animals, a lot of pasture and the Portneuf River running through it.
“We just fell in love with it,” Robert said of what was previously a cattle ranch. “It’s just perfect for what we were doing. We were buying it with our future in mind, but also the future of the animals.”
While the Perkins were living in Utah, the Idaho ranch was prepped from 2014 to 2016, with the installation of about 68 acres of 7-foot perimeter fencing eating up the most time. The majority of the ranch was prepared by the 26-year married couple, who are both in their 40s.
Jenny was apprehensive about leaving their home state and their adult children in the first place but loves the place now. In Utah, she didn’t get a full ranching experience because the bison were on a different plot of land than their home.
“You are just right there with nature, seeing the Lord’s hand in everything we do. And I think that is a huge positive.” Jenny said. “It’s just a little piece of heaven right there.”
They forged forward and entered a process of transporting bison to their new home around the start of 2017.
The final 12 were shipped right after being used on “Yellowstone,” which was partly shot in Utah.
The Perkins’ bison were on the Paramount Network show thanks to a Utahan who was supplying animals to the TV show and asked Robert to loan his bison for money. The animals appeared in the intro of every episode in addition to playing a role in at least one of the early episodes, where Robert recognized two of his bison.
Robert said he identified a female because it had more of an unusual masculine look, while the other bison was mainly recognizable because of its hump.
They were out of Robert’s custody for about a day and a half for TV production.
Robert said he was a “little nervous” about the arrangement, but Jenny expressed how that was a massive understatement. She said it took hours of discussion to talk him into it.
“He thought it would be really neat, but he was nervous because he didn’t want anything to happen to these animals,” Jenny said. “Once I finally got him on board, then we worked all of the logistics out and then it was a done deal. But it took a little bit of talking. He was so concerned about those animals.”
While the TV program is on a little-known channel, it has a wide audience with its season 1 finale drawing over 2 million viewers. Life in the West, away from city life, has been a big draw in the TV industry lately with countless other Westerns flooding the platform, including Ashton Kutcher’s Netflix show, “The Ranch.”
“I think that’s why agritourism is so big because people want a taste of it,” Jenny said. “They want to see what the other half does. But there’s so much work involved, I don’t know if they would actually want to live there, in that world.”
The Perkins obviously don’t experience the danger some Westerns convey, as they have not even suffered a bison-related injury. But they experience the tranquility of the open range.
Neither one of them had experienced anything quite like it. Robert’s family had cattle and pigs, while Jenny’s had a similar arrangement — though it was all minor.
Robert explained how he liked the aura of bison when discussing his entrance into ranching. But how do you go from there to owning a herd of nearly 50?
While Robert could not pinpoint a hard inflection point in which he decided he had to have bison, his wife could.
Jenny said there was a chat between Robert and one of his sons while hunting on a hillside. After discussing his son’s hopes for the future, his son turned toward Robert and asked, “What are your dreams?”
“A couple years later, we had animals,” Jenny said.