The New Bison

photo of bison by Stuart E. Knapp
Spanish colonists in Mexico in the 1600s first tried to use bison as work animals, but the earliest attempts to raise them for meat apparently took place in 1701 in Virginia, where Huguenot settlers on the James River near Richmond began cross-breeding them with domestic livestock.

A settler at Lexington, Kentucky, began trying to domesticate bison in 1815, but abandoned the effort after 30 years. In 1837, Thomas Jefferson's treasury secretary, Albert Gallatin, reported on successful interbreedings somewhere in the South. Scattered experiments continued throughout the 19th century, including the widely publicized enterprises of Kansan C.J. "Buffalo" Jones, and Texan Charles Goodnight. The aim of all these efforts was to produce a strain of domestic cattle that would be hardier, longer-lived, more cold-tolerant, and more disease-resistant, than their European cousins.

The major development in the history of the American bison in the 20th century has been the opening--or should we say reopening--of a market for bison meat, which holds a special appeal in urbanized American society. Beyond the symbolic appeal of "feasting on history," there is the very attractive fact that bison meat is lower in fat, calories, and cholesterol than beef, pork, or chicken. Ironically, that is precisely the reason the Corps of Discovery disdained "pore" animals, picked over each carcass, and left much food for wolves, grizzlies, and birds.

The current interest in commercial bison production is represented by the National Bison Association, which has evolved out of two organizations established in the 1960s and 70s. The NBA (http://www.nbabison.org), which "promotes the preservation, production, and marketing of bison," has members in the United States and Canada and abroad. Typical of the larger commercial operations are the Triple U ranch at Fort Pierre, South Dakota, which currently runs some 5,000 head, and the Turner Ranches in Montana, New Mexico, and Nebraska, which support more than 10,000 head. Regional bison associations have sprung up all over North America.

Also, bison are being re-introduced into Indian culture. The Intertribal Bison Cooperative (http://www.intertribalbison.org), which represents over 30 Indian tribes, is "committed to re-establishing buffalo herds on Indian lands in a manner that promotes cultural enhancement, spiritual revitalization, ecological restoration, and economic development."