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Thunder of the Plains:  The American Bison

Thunder of the Plains: The American Bison

The American Bison is America’s original large animal. Found in North America since the last Ice Age, they roamed the prairies and woodlands from Alaska to Florida, sustaining Native Americans with nutritious food, clothing and other materials. Some Native American cultures were entirely dependent on following the migrating Bison herds. Once numbering in the tens of millions, it took less than a century to cut their numbers down to near extinction.

The American Bison is commonly called an American Buffalo. While this is technically wrong, there’s a legitimate case for the latter. A true "buffalo” refers to one of two different species of animals, the Asian Water Buffalo and the African Cape Buffalo. All three species are members of the bovina sub tribe but the American Bison is more closely related to their European cousins, the European bison, and Yak.

There are two different types of American Bison, Wood and Plains Bison, differentiated by their range and habitats. However, they are similar enough for us to talk about them as one species.

Bison are big and dangerous. They are can weigh between 701 and 2,025 pounds, with the largest recorded domestic bison weighing in at 3,801 pounds. From nose to tail, they can be 11.5 feet long and 6 to 8 feet tall with 2 foot horns.  What makes them dangerous is they have a natural instinct to roam and sometimes when they decide to not use their 6 foot jumping ability to leap over the fences, they will bust through them at 40 mph.

Bison have tapered bodies, holding the a large portion of their weight over their front legs. They are shades of brown, with a dark, shaggy coat in the winter and a lighter, shorter coat for the summer months.

Bison meat tastes very similar to beef and has a darker red hue. The meat has less fat and cholesterol than beef and contains more protein.  Grass-fed Bison meat is full of vitamin B12, iron and zinc and contains a generous serving of omega-3 fats, making it a very heart healthy protein source. Due to it's leaner composition, bison meat has earned a reputation for being dry and tough. This is only true of bison meat that has been overcooked. If we must quantify, bison meat cooks in about 25% less time than beef.






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The scientific classification for the American Bison is Bison Bison — originating from the Greek term for “ox-like animal” — and is a pretty straight-forward name. However, the first published description of the animal by a Euro-American came in 1625, who used the term “buffalo,” stemming from French fur trappers calling them “boeuf," meaning ox or bullock. The first published mention of “bison” didn’t appear until 149 years later. Meanwhile, Native American languages had their own unique terms for the animals, often specifying between males and females. While “buffalo” isn’t the most accurate name for the animal, it certainly isn’t wrongIf you see meat labeled as “buffalo” in North America, you are buying American Bison.

Even though bison are the America’s first beast, their treatment by the US government has been egregious, if not outright sad. In less than 100 years, the wild bison population in North American went from what some estimates say were between 30 and 60 million, to 325.

As Europeans arrived in North America, eastern seaboard cities quickly became over-crowded and western expansion began with promises of golden fortunes and ample land. The mass migration westward quickly turned into a war over land and cultural ideals. When people moved west, they brought with them guns and horses that they traded with non-combative tribes for bison meat and hides. Some accounts claim that the Native’s acquisition of firearms, along with the demand for food by the expansioners, led to the traditional Native practice of only hunting for what you need to be pushed aside for capitalistic reasons. While this may be partially true, the American Army also had hunters, trappers and furriers employed to hunt for provisions. All told, between 1700-1800, around 200,000 bison were killed annually.

Wagon trains and small expeditions soon gave way to railroads, bringing more people that demanded food and clothing. As railroad crews starting laying ties, Native American tribes felt that their land was being embedded upon, leading to war and new tactics from the American Armies who needed a counter-attack to the guerrilla-style skirmishes.

General Philip Sheridan, Civil War Union Veteran and leader of the Military Division of the Missouri, was placed in charge of the entire Great Plains by President Grant, who’s order was to quell Native American resistances. “Make them poor by the destruction of their stock, and then settle them on the lands allotted to them,” Sheridan then instructed. Soldiers, along with homesteaders and hunters began killing bison by the thousands. When the Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869, it divided the bison into the Northern and Southern Herds, effectively cornering the millions-strong herds. 

In 1870, just two years after the division of herds, 2 million bison were killed in the Southern Herd alone. In 1872, 5,000 bison were being killed every day and Bison “hunting” had turned into a sport for wealthy Americans, with some accounts of firing from moving trains, without stopping to collect the bodies. By 1873, “you could walk 100 miles along the Santa Fe Railway, stepping from bison [carcass] to bison [carcass].” 

A few years prior, German leather manufacturers developed methods for tanning buffalo hides into premium leather which further drove demand. One Montana county shipped 180,000 skins in 1881 alone. Hunting parties would kill 10,000 bison in just a few days, wiping out entire herds over the span of a few months. In 1882, hunters theorized that the missing Northern Herd had migrated up through Canada, but in reality, they were all killed. By 1884, only 300 wild bison remained with another 25 being federally protected in Yellowstone National Park.  These 25 bison are the ancestors of what is thought to be the only pure bison herd left in North America today.

There were some thinly veiled attempts at protecting the bison during the late 1800s. It seems as though most legislators would acknowledge that over-hunting was detrimental, but only a few bills were passed and even fewer were enforced. Idaho passed laws protecting bison in the 1860’s, a few years after bison were gone from the state (as did New Mexico in 1880). In 1871, Arizona passed a law forbidding anyone from killing bison on public land except for the purposes of food and skins, then the document itself mysteriously disappeared. Kansas and Colorado had similar laws presented but the governor of Kansas vetoed the bill and Colorado just "forgot" to enforce the law. Congress passed protection for female bison on a federal level but President Grant, presumably still consumed with the goal of eliminating the native threat, refused to sign.

The Long Depression, a global economic downturn, hit the country in 1873. This lead to an influx of farmer’s-turned-hunters heading west to capitalize on the booming bison market.  Bison Robes, or skins, fetched upwards of $3 each (approx. $70 today) and bones were selling for $8 per ton.  Folks were making small fortunes on the humps, hides, bones and tongues and the rest was left to rot in the sun. Soon though, the supply surpassed demand and the price for bison plummeted. The last commercial shipment of hides in the US was sent in 1889. The devastation of bison populations also signaled the end of the American Indian Wars as Native Americans were pushed into reservations due to lack of resources.

Despite the devastation caused by the value placed on bison — or lack of bison — it’s also what saved them from complete extinction. Brave entrepreneurs saw opportunity in having a constant supply of bison during the boom of the 1880s and captured bison calves to domesticate them as best they could. In 1884, Charles Goodnight established a domesticated herd and others started to follow suit. This was Goodnight’s second attempt, after his first pair of breeding aged bison mysteriously disappeared from his land several years prior. By the time the last commercial shipment of hides took place, there were approximately 1,000 bison left in North America; 85 wild, 200 in federally protected herds, 550 in Canada and 256 in zoos and private herds. In 1905, the American Bison Society was founded and public awareness of their endangerment spread. By 1910, the population doubled and by 1990, approximately 25,000 bison were accounted for.

Bison have since become an American Icon, especially of the American West. It appears on the Wyoming State flag as well as currency and as a moniker for several professional and collegiate athletic teams, presumably to honor their power, grace and athletic ability. In 2016, congress voted and the National Bison Act was signed into law by President Obama, making Bison the official mammal of the United States and lifting them to ranks of the American Bald Eagle. There are currently 180,000 bison on private and public lands, with the most famous still being the Yellowstone herd that is considered the only pure Bison left in America. With their value shifting from tactical to nutritional, Bison stand a chance at a tremendous comeback to be the most American of meats.

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