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Bison once roamed from Canada to Mexico, grazing the great plains and frequenting the mountain areas of the North American continent. Their number being so great that the early explorers could not count them, describing them as "number-numberless," and "the country was one black robe" and the "plains were black and appeared as if in motion" with the herds of bison. The most commonly used estimate of their former numbers is approximately 60 million.

A strong relationship between the human and the bison has existed for thousand of years. Bison were the center of life for the Plains Tribes of Native Americans, providing them with food, shelter, clothing and spiritual inspiration. Legend tells "the Great Spirit brought the pipe to the people. She came as a young woman wearing a white buckskin dress and moccasins. After the Great Spirit presented the pipe to the people and explained the significance of that pipe, she left the tepee as a white bison calf."

The near extermination of the American Bison did not occur just in a few short violent years. The fur trade, which began in the 1600s, initially focused on beaver but then demanded that bison (buffalo) robes be shipped to Europe. By the early 1800s, trade in buffalo robes and buffalo tongues significantly increased and caused approximately 200,000 bison kills annually on the plains. The 1830s to 1860s were the four decades in which most of the slaughter of bison occurred. Wagon load after wagon load of robes, tongues and, occasionally, selected cuts of bison meat, moved east. Soon, collection and shipping of bison bones to eastern cities where they ground up for use as phosphorous fertilizer or bone char became common. The arrival of the railroads further exacerbated herd conditions for the bison and by the early 1880s there were only a few free-ranging bison.

Ranchers and breeders recognizing the obvious economic potential of the animal, expanded their efforts to preserve, protect and reestablish the American Bison. The National Bison Association (NBA) estimates approximately 150,000 bison in public and private herds in the United States at this time. Of these animals the federal government manages approximately 6,000 and tribal authorities at least 5,000. A small number of bison are managed by city and state governments but 90% are owned and managed by private sector entrepreneurs. Herd numbers can range from one to several thousand. The largest public herd is in Yellowstone National Park (approximately 4,500), and the three largest private herds are those owned by the Houck family of Pierre, South Dakota, Turner Enterprises and Durham Ranches, Inc.

The NBA has over 2,250 members. Within the past 10 years there has been enormous interest demonstrated in the bison industry by people attracted not only by the natural romance of western American culture and the bison, but also by the potential for economic profit. The demand for bison meat far exceeds the supply - and given the hardiness of the bison and the assured high prices for bison meat, the bison industry is in great economic health.

Research has demonstrated that bison is a highly nutrient dense food because of the proportion of protein, fat, minerals and fatty acids compared to caloric value. Comparisons with other slaughtered animals also show that bison has a greater concentration of iron as well as other essential ingredients. The legendary strength and endurance of the Native Plains American are perhaps testimony to the extraordinary nutritional values acquired from a diet that depended upon a constant supply of bison meat. Although bison is thus an excellent red meat source that is higher in protein, lower in fat, cholesterol and calories than other meats, the cattle and bison industry are not really competitors. There is no way bison producers could satisfy the red meat and protein needs of the American public. Bison meat is an alternative to beef considering the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that 124,000 cattle are slaughtered each day and there are only 150,000 head of bison in all public and private herds in the United States.

The American Buffalo is not a true buffalo. Its closest relative is the European Bison or Wisent and the Canadian Woods Bison, not the buffalo of Asia or Africa, such as the Cape Buffalo or Water Buffalo. Scientifically, the American Buffalo is named Bison and belongs to Bovidae family of mammals, as do domestic cattle. Because our history has so ingrained in us the name "Buffalo", we still use it, although "Bison" and "Buffalo" are used interchangeably.


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Last Updated: February 22, 2005