Why the Buffalo Roam

Bison are flourishing again on the plains--because we like to eat them. Thoughts on a paradox

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Carlo Allegri / Getty Images

Jim Sautner reads in his living room with his trained buffalo Bailey on April 5, 2004, in Spruce Grove, Canada.

Sometimes you have to eat an animal to save it. That paradox may disturb vegetarians, but consider the bison: 500 years ago, perhaps 30 million of these enormous mammals inhabited North America. By the late 1800s, several forces--natural climate changes and Buffalo Bill--style mass killings among them--had slashed the bison population to something like 1,000. And yet today North America is home to roughly 450,000 bison, a species recovery that has a lot to do with our having developed an appetite for them.

This year usda-inspected slaughterhouses will kill approximately 50,000 bison for human consumption. In 2000 the figure was just 17,674. Although bison consumption remains minuscule compared to beef eating--Americans ingest the meat of 90,000 cattle every day--bison is by far the fastest-growing sector of the meat business. We like bison because it's much leaner than beef but still satisfies that voluptuary jones for red meat. (Market research shows that men in particular enjoy bison, which Americans have long called buffalo even though the species known zoologically as Bison bison is not a true buffalo.) An entire restaurant chain, Ted's Montana Grill (named for one of its founders, Ted Turner, former vice chairman of Time's parent, Time Warner Inc.), has largely defined itself through bison offerings, which include burgers and tenderloin that taste stronger, somehow meatier, than beef. Next month the chain plans to open its 48th location, this one in Naperville, Ill.

How can any of this be good news for the mythic, native (and rather dim) kings of the American plains? And now that we have revived bison as a species, can we figure a way not to screw it up again--to manage and slaughter them sanely and humanely?

The answers to these questions must begin by correcting a misapprehension: that the 19th century white man's greed for hides and virtual policy of genocide toward Native Americans led to the extermination of tens of millions of bison. Not exactly. As the late bison expert Dale Lott demonstrates in his acclaimed natural history American Bison (2002), the bison population often shrank dramatically in preindustrial times when the jet stream moved south and brought dry air to the plains. In 1841, before William Cody (the most famous of several men known as "Buffalo Bill") was even born, a freak cold snap left a layer of ice over the Wyoming prairie so thick that even the biggest bison bulls--which can weigh a ton--couldn't break through to eat grass. Millions of bison perished, and the species never returned to that state's grasslands.

But climate changes alone weren't enough to wipe out 30 million bison. Humans played a big role. By 1700 Native Americans were riding horses, which allowed them to kill prey much more efficiently than by approaching on foot, as they had done for the previous 9,000 years. Steam power allowed for the cheap transport of bison hides, and in the 1870s tanners learned to make useful leather from them. Demand soared, and the new Sharps "buffalo rifle" allowed hunters to meet that demand. The last significant bison hunt ended in 1883, when there were almost none left.

Conservationists saved a few--there were probably more bison at the Bronx Zoo in 1900 than there were in all of Oklahoma--and gradually bison were reintroduced to natural habitats like the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge. But it wasn't until the '70s, when ranchers began acquiring bison with an eye toward encouraging a boutique meat market (Native Americans, Old West enthusiasts, health nuts), that the species rebounded in numbers significant enough to ensure genetic diversity and protection against disasters like that 1841 freeze. Today private owners care for 97% of the world's bison population, according to Cormack Gates, who chairs the World Conservation Union's North American Bison Specialist Group.

The ranchers care for bison because they can make money selling their meat. And so bison are flourishing again because they have the evolutionary advantage of tasting good and having survived to a time when we all need to eat leaner. We win, and bison win. Of course, the individual bison we eat lose, but the nature of the paradox is that most never would have a chance at life at all if we didn't provide a reason for their husbandry. Vegetarians may argue that no life is better than one cut short at slaughter, but in terms of maximizing their genetic expression, Bison bison would have to disagree.

Plus, there's another reason to eat bison: doing so is good for the planet. Bison are leaner than cattle because they are still wild animals who range and eat grass; they do not tolerate confinement well, and so they cannot be fattened the way we do cattle, which we have bred to eat rich corn mixtures their entire adult lives. Growing corn to feed cattle costs the nation dearly in terms of pesticide and fertilizer runoff. The pollution and inhumanity of the confinement-feedlot beef system make it one of postwar America's biggest ecological blunders.

Bison, on the other hand, eat grass that grows freely, and the manure they produce is a natural fertilizer. True, some bison ranchers are irresponsibly corralling and then "finishing" their animals with a fattier diet of grain just before slaughter. This makes the meat richer, more like beef. Ted's Montana Grill serves grain-finished bison, for instance, although CEO George McKerrow Jr. says the chain is testing grass-finished meat for consistency and quality.

Eating bison may have helped save the animals, but it does raise the danger that managed herds will become domesticated and lose their distinct bison-ness. Ranchers have a financial incentive to cull herd members who are cantankerous (as older bulls are), who break fences, who fight other bulls. But removing these animals is a form of unnatural selection: it will eventually remove wild traits from the bison gene pool, making them docile like cattle.

The best thing we can do to let bison be bison is to end their lives in the wild, not in captivity. Today, John and Wright Mooar, the prodigious bison hunting brothers who helped lead the "Great Slaughter" in the late 1800s, are reviled for shooting so many bison on the open range. But, ironically, theirs was a more humane way of killing bison than ours. Last summer, I watched a bison heifer be led into the chute at the North American Bison Cooperative, a slaughterhouse in New Rockford, N.D. She became agitated, and she fought violently against the tight steel walls. It was painful to watch. Ahead of her, a door opened, and the heifer ran forward--into the waiting arms of a "V-conveyor restrainer," which held her on both sides and immobilized her legs. A metal clamp descended to restrain her head, and then a man walked forward, shot her with a pneumatic gun and sliced her open.

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