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The great American bison

They show up on old nickels, on the backs of quarters and on flags. They surface in burgers and jerky, in the logos of sports teams and universities and in the names of towns and cities.

A 2008 survey conducted by the Wilderness Conservation Society revealed that, while 74 percent of Americans polled agreed that bison are “extremely important living symbols of the American West,” and more than half agreed that bison are important symbols of our country as a whole, fewer than 10 percent had any idea how many bison are left in the country. Eighty-three percent of survey subjects believed that bison meat “was good or better than beef,” but only 40 percent had actually tried it. It’s hard to live in this part of the world without being a little bit familiar with the American bison, but how far beyond familiar does our knowledge extend?

1. Bison are big, powerful creatures.

The average American bison – commonly referred to as the American buffalo — stands 5 to 6.5 feet tall and can weigh more than a ton. Despite that heft, bison can run at speeds of more than 30 miles per hour and execute standing jumps of up to 6 feet in the air. Yellowstone National Park warns its visitors to stay at least 25 yards away from all wild bison, and for good reason. These lumbering vegetarians have injured more Yellowstone tourists than any other animal in the park.

The bison’s wild temperament and legendary stubbornness have frustrated more than a few wannabe wranglers. “You can herd a buffalo anywhere he wants to go” goes the saying among farmers and ranchers familiar with these imposing animals.

2. Once upon a time, bison roamed in huge herds across the wilds of the United States and Canada.

The American bison, the largest land animal native to North America, prospered in the open grasslands of this country for centuries. Scientists estimate that there were more than 30 million bison in North America when the first European settlers arrived on the continent, grazing a vast range which ran from northern Canada to northern Mexico and from western New York to eastern Washington.

“The amazing herds of buffaloes which resort thither, by their size and number, fill the traveller with amazement and terror,” wrote John Filson in 1784 of herds in northern Kentucky. The journals of Lewis and Clark described western herds “so numerous” that they “darkened the whole plains.”

As late as 1871, a young soldier named George Anderson described an “enormous” herd of bison in Kansas which took he and his men six days to pass through. “I am safe in calling this a single herd,” he wrote, “and it is impossible to approximate the millions that composed it.”

3. But the bison was practically extinct by the end of the 19th century.

A fatal combination of events came together against the bison in the second half of the 19th century. American Indian tribes acquired horses and guns and were able to kill bison in larger numbers than ever before. A drought dried out the animals’ grassland habitat, which was already overburdened by new populations of horses and cattle. Farmers and ranchers began killing bison to make room for their animals. Some soldiers killed bison to spite their American Indian enemies, who depended on the animals for food and clothing.

Railroads were laid through the bison’s territory, dividing herds and accelerating the arrival of hunters, whose kills fed the high demand for bison hides back East and in Europe. Sport shooters traveled west to shoot the animals by the dozens, sometimes from the open windows of moving trains, and often left their bodies out on the plains to rot once the hunt was over.

By the beginning of the 20th century, there were only several hundred bison left in North America.

4. Today’s bison aren’t exactly the animals they used to be.

The efforts of early 20th century organizations like the American Bison Society, headed by zoologist William Hornaday and former president Theodore Roosevelt, were able to rescue the bison from its impending extinction. Today’s bison population is higher than 500,000 and steadily growing.

According to Texas A&M professor of veterinary pathobiology Dr. James Derr, though, most bison alive today are genetically different from their wild ancestors. At the low point of the bison population – what geneticists call the “bottleneck” – in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the ranchers who owned a lot of the remaining bison population bred their bison with cattle in an attempt to create better meat animals. “When people went looking for bison later,” said Derr, “they had to go to the private guys who owned them, and in many cases those private guys had been producing hybrids.”

Derr has spent the past several decades analyzing bison DNA to determine which herds contain cattle genes, and believes that only about 1.6 percent of today’s bison population (8,000 animals) is not hybridized.

And today’s bison don’t roam the plains like they used to, either. Only about 20,000 bison – 4 percent of the overall population – make up the wild herds that graze our national parks and private reserves. The other 96 percent are livestock animals, raised commercially for meat and hides.

5. Americans are eating more bison.

Buffalo. It's what's for breakfast in Virgin, Utah. Photo: Catherine Quayle

In this era of buying local, supporting sustainable agriculture, and eating healthy, bison meat is showing up on more and more American dinner tables. Bison are native food animals which process North American grasses more efficiently than cattle. They aren’t treated with antibiotics or growth hormones and their meat contains less fat, less cholesterol, and more nutrients than beef, pork or chicken.

The growing demand for these animals’ meat has created a nationwide “bison boom” which has left many bison producers scrambling to expand their herds as meat prices soar. According to the National Bison Association, the number of bison processed in North America doubled between 2005 and 2009. Last year was the most profitable year on record for the bison industry.

But while it might look like bison is on its way to becoming a mainstream meat, these numbers are all relative: the number of bison processed in North America in 2009, about 92,000, is close to the number of cattle processed in this country every day.