A rancher cham­pions the Amer­ican bison’s enduring legacy

At the age of 65, Ed Dillinger and his family thought about setting up a bison ranch in the United States. At the Lazy Heart D-Ranch, he offers guided tours to show chil­dren and adults life on the ranch.

For more than 50 years, Ed Dillinger was a high school basket­ball referee and foot­ball offi­cial in his native state of Kansas. Offi­ci­ating, the 87-year-old reasons, was an exer­cise in disci­pline. It required him to see the action unfold before his eyes, yet still be cognizant of the activity surrounding him.

Raising bison is not dissim­ilar

“When you’re around bison, or any other wild animal, their survival depends 100% upon their aware­ness of your pres­ence,” explains Dillinger, whose ranch is near West­more­land, Kansas, in the heart of the tall­grass prairie. “In offi­ci­ating almost any sport, you have two jobs. One, focus on the ball, or where the action is. The other, focus on the other stuff. “That,” he explains, “is how you facil­i­tate the game.”

Ed Dillinger retired from teaching to estab­lish a bison ranch near West­more­land, Kansas, in 1995. The 87-year-old Dillinger offers nearly 100 tours per year.

At nearly one ton in mass and a towering six-feet tall, bison bulls are the largest mammals in North America. Bison cows weigh about half that size. The animals can run nearly 35 miles per hour and jump over six feet. Those animals, Dillinger says, demand respect.

With his wife, Susan, son Kyle and daughter-in-law, Kellie, he owns and oper­ates Lazy Heart D Ranch, which features bison, Beef­master cattle and blood­lines for Morgan horses dating back nearly 100 years. Dillinger had a circuitous profes­sional career that included teaching phys­ical educa­tion and driver’s ed in Wichita, Kansas, and stints as a strategic consul­tant and facil­i­tator for The Insti­tute of Cultural Affairs in Taiwan, India, and Zambia.

After a decade over­seas, Dillinger moved back to Kansas to teach special educa­tion. He bought the ranch that became Lazy Heart D Ranch in 1993. “I was thinking, working with special needs kids, that I wanted to set up a Grandpa farm,” Dillinger recalls.

I didn’t know anything about buffalo, except I knew who Buffalo Bill was. So I visited some ranches and put together a plan.

Ed Dillinger

“When I was a kid, every­body had a rela­tive with a farm you could visit. Today, you have kids and grownups who have never been to a farm.” Before long, he began offering tours. “And then I thought, wouldn’t it be cool if I had some bison out here?” he says.

Bison were once ubiq­ui­tous throughout North America, but predom­i­nantly based in the prairies of the High Plains. “I didn’t know anything about buffalo, except I knew who Buffalo Bill was. So I visited some ranches and put together a plan.” He bought three heifer calves in 1995, purchased three more the next year and never looked back.

A bison leg bone used to tighten a barbed wire fence.
A blanket made from bison fur is surpris­ingly soft, yet incred­ibly durable. Once ubiq­ui­tous on the Plains, the Amer­ican bison nearly became extinct. Now, nearly 500,000 head thrive in conser­va­tion and commer­cial herds.

With the help of his family, Dillinger conducts about 100 tours per year, offering guests a history of bison in Kansas, a hayrack ride across the 400 acres of Flint Hills pasture to where the 40-head herd grazes. Here, in the prairie where bison once roamed en masse, guests may feed the herd  by hand. It is a rare oppor­tu­nity to be so close to the massive beasts. 

The Lazy Heart D guest­book register includes high school students from Germany, inter­na­tional student groups from nearby Kansas State Univer­sity and a host of fami­lies, school groups, and civic orga­ni­za­tions.

In lieu of charging admis­sion for tours, Dillinger encour­ages partic­i­pants to offer cash dona­tions to a local care ministry or food bank. For school groups or youth groups, he asks teachers or leaders to have the kids take on a project that helps others. “I’m building more fabric in the commu­nity,” he explains. “We have kids doing a project for an agency they might other­wise not even know about.”

The herd bull is nearly 6-feet tall and weighs two tons.

Ice Age animals. Not far south of the Lazy Heart D Ranch, the glacial boundary from the Ice Age ended, forming the Kansas and Blue rivers, according to the Kansas Geolog­ical Survey. Bison from the Ice Age era used glac­iers as a land bridge to what is now America, and those animals (called “steppe” bison) share DNA with modern Amer­ican bison, according to pale­on­tol­o­gists at the Australian Center for Ancient DNA.

“I like to share that kind of histor­ical context before we go out to see the herd,” Dillinger says. “I want people to perceive a first-time expe­ri­ence, and one that is much greater than they might ever have thought about.” 

Although he sells both bison freezer meat and live animals at the annual Kansas Buffalo Asso­ci­a­tion Fall Sale, the value of raising bison is measured not from dollars and cents but from the satis­fac­tion of teaching and helping others. “I don’t know how much [these tours] contribute to the commu­nity. If you’re satis­fied with what you’re doing, you don’t need to measure it,” he says. “So many of us are value conscious; value, in terms of ego. I get my reward when we finish a tour and someone tells me, ‘that was great. We’ll be back.’”