Buffalo, the Other Red Meat

In the sweeping vista of time and American history there is perhaps no more powerful symbol than the American buffalo. Majestic and wild, it captures the imagination and is reminiscent of a time when the land was unsettled, when these shaggy creatures stretched from horizon to horizon and the possibilities in the New World seemed as infinite as the number of bison.

For many, bison today are as mystical and spiritual as they were then, if not more so. A living representation of the darker side of humanity, a side that kills without regard, they also reflect the more positive attributes of humankind. Ironically, bison exist today because human beings, the species that almost hunted them into extinction, saved them.

In this new century, the place of bison is changing. No longer are bison just a species saved from the brink of extinction or another attraction at the zoo. There are many who now see bison as integral to restoring damaged lands and as an efficient and sustainable source of meat. Bison ranching is an industry in its infancy, anxious to prove its viability, and in another irony, it has its roots in the way indigenous people once utilized this indigenous animal.

The Comeback Species

The great American bison is the largest land mammal to have called North America home since the end of the Ice Age. Today's bison can weigh up to 2,000 pounds; they can be more than a dozen feet long and stand up to six feet tall at their massive shoulder hump. Estimates of the pre-European herd size vary from 30 million to 70 million animals, and they ranged over most of North America.

But the world of the bison changed with the vast numbers of settlers who headed west for gold, for land, for a new life in the 1800s. On and on they came, in ceaseless waves, unstoppable, unmanageable, unbeatable.

By the 1870s, buffalo hunters were making money hand over fist as hundreds of thousands of buffalo hides were shipped eastward each year: more than 1.5 million were packed aboard trains and wagons in the winter of 1872-73 alone. An even darker side to the debacle emerged as some U.S. government officials promoted the destruction of bison as a way to subjugate American Indians.

To the Indians, bison were everything: food, drink, clothing, shelter. Their lives revolved around the annual buffalo hunt, which was celebrated in song and ritual, and the "buffalo people," as some tribes called the animals, were revered for the power and the good fortune they brought the tribe.

A page on the National Bison Association's Web site which details every part of the buffalo and the more than 135 ways Indians used them, demonstrates the extreme efficiency and ingenuity of native people. For example, buffalo chips became diaper powder, tendons became bow strings and gall became yellow paint. But their efficient use of and dependence on the buffalo was also their downfall and ultimately that of the buffalo.

One member of Congress, U.S. Rep. James Throckmorton of Texas, believed that "it would be a great step forward in the civilization of the Indians and the preservation of peace on the border if there was not a buffalo in existence." Subsequently, military commanders began ordering their troops to kill buffalo, which denied American Indians their primary source of food.

By the mid-1880s, the slaughter was almost over. Where millions of buffalo once roamed, only a few hundred remained. Estimates vary on just how few bison were left after the slaughter (anywhere from 300 to 1,500) but what is clear is that in a disturbingly short amount of time, bison were almost obliterated.

Efforts to save the bison from extinction were rooted in the establishment of Yellowstone National Park, where a small herd lived. Then, in 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt, along with others, founded the American Buffalo Society, which spearheaded efforts to save the bison. Today, there are approximately 350,000 head of bison throughout North America and the world in private and public herds. The bison population in North America is now growing at a rate of about 15 to 20 percent each year. At that rate, in about 20 years, the bison could again number in the millions.

The Business of Bison

In the first chapter of the critically acclaimed book "Lasso the Wind: Away to the New West," author Timothy Egan outlines the struggle between the U.S. Forest Service, which is charged with caring for public lands, and local ranchers, who long have utilized public lands for grazing their cattle. The chapter focuses on Catron County, New Mexico, where overgrazing by cattle has caused extensive damage to the Gila River and the Gila National Forest. Parallel to this issue, Egan describes the New Mexico ranches of Ted Turner, founder of CNN, where cattle have been replaced with bison in an attempt to restore the land.

Turner owns 13 ranches in the West, including properties in Montana, New Mexico, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas, as well as about 1,500 acres in Oklahoma that were added about a year ago. According to the general manager of Turner's ranches, Russ Miller, Turner runs bison on all of them.

With a total of approximately 27,000 head, Turner owns the largest herd of bison in the world. Although Turner acquired his first bison in the Seventies because of his empathy for the animals' near demise, he started getting into bison ranching in 1989 with the acquisition of the Flying D Ranch in Montana. Turner now slaughters about 3,000 head of bison a year through the North American Bison Cooperative in North Dakota.

Turner is perhaps the most prolific bison rancher, but he is hardly alone. The National Bison Association, a non-profit association which promotes the preservation, production and marketing of bison, has more than 2,400 members in all 50 states and 16 foreign countries. As more and more people hear about bison meat, which is healthy, lean and nutritious, demand grows for the meat, making the bison ranching industry one of the fastest growing in agriculture today. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, approximately one million pounds of bison is consumed each month by American consumers and the selling of bison meat has become a $650 million industry. Bison producers can be found in all 50 states, every Canadian province and many countries around the world.

America's Original Red Meat

Efficiency is the buzz word in today's corporate culture. Efficient buildings, efficient employees, efficient processes. If it isn't efficient, it's history.

By these standards, in many ways, bison not only meets but exceeds the efficiency factor. Bison are indigenous and, because of that fact, they are hardy animals suited to the extreme climate changes of the plains. During the harsh winter of 1996-97, blizzards in North and South Dakota caused an estimated loss of 395,000 cattle. But only one bison died, and that was because it strayed onto a highway and was struck by a semi trailer.

Bison have a productive life almost twice that of cattle. Buffalo cows usually have their first calf at three years of age and will deliver a calf every year thereafter, while living for as many as 30 to 35 years. In general, bison sent to slaughter for meat are bulls between 18 and 30 months of age that usually bring at least twice the price of beef. Bison byproducts, namely hides and skulls, provide more revenue than traditional livestock operations. Hundreds of farmers in Minnesota and the Dakotas have gotten into the lucrative business in the past five years, and many are waiting in line to buy scarce breeding stock.

Bison are handled as little as possible and spend their lives on grass, much as they always have, with little to no time in the feedlot. They are not subjected to questionable drugs or hormones. The members of the NBA felt so strongly about this that they have a resolution opposing the use of these substances in the production of bison meat.

Bison meat is lower in fat, cholesterol and calories than chicken, pork, beef or turkey and has a sweet, rich, non-gamy flavor. Additionally, research by Dr. Martin Marchello of North Dakota State University has shown that bison is a highly nutrient-dense food because of the proportion of protein, fat, minerals and fatty acids to it's caloric value. Comparisons to other meat sources showed that bison has a greater concentration of iron, as well as some of the essential fatty acids necessary for human well being.

The value of bison meat is not in what is paid, but what the consumer receives in return, countering the fact that bison meat tends to cost more than beef. Because bison provides more protein and nutrients with less fat and calories, smaller portions are quite satisfying. A recent article in Reader's Digest about the five foods women need most listed buffalo meat as the No. 4 food item because "buffalo meat is lean and has what diet-conscious women want -- lots of iron and less fat than most cuts of beef." The article touted buffalo meat as helping to "boost energy and lower weight." The American Heart Association also includes bison as a lean meat option in its brochure "An Eating Plan for Healthy Americans."

Back to the Future

The West is weathering another evolution. In "Lasso the Wind," Egan writes that the last western evolution was winding down about a century ago. Today, the stage and the players are changing again.

"As cattle barons replaced people who lived off the natural bounty, so now the bison rancher with one foot in the new century is replacing the cowboy, and the once nearly extinct wild animals are being allowed to come home. Every cycle produces new victors and new victims," he writes.

Conservationist Frank Popper, a professor in the Urban Studies Department at Rutgers University, views the growing popularity of bison ranching in a positive light.

"Ranchers can easily switch to buffalo and sell hunting rights, meats, hides, horns and skulls at healthy prices," he said. "Land value also increases when it offers game (hunting) and tourism, rather than just agriculture."

And finally, in an article entitled "Buffalo Nation" in Sierra Magazine, Winona LaDuke, an American Indian activist and Ralph Nader's Green Party running mate in the 2000 presidential election, writes, "For Native America, the bison is the elder brother and teacher. For the Great Plains, he may be the salvation."

Bison are a connection to the earth, to a way of life now extinct, to the spirit of the past, present and future. And in the present, times are changing for bison. That which is old does become new again, and the wise lessons of nature, often ignored, are suddenly rediscovered holding a gift for the future.

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