Big news from Big Sky, Montana
The 2017 International Bison Conference announced that the bison industry expects to increase the combined North American herd to 1 million strong by 2027. According to the National Bison Association website, this will require an increase of more than 600,000 head, an ambitious but achievable goal, combining the efforts of private ranchers, public herd managers, and tribal and government organizations all across the North American continent.
A Barbaric Trend Toward Extinction
The North American bison resurgence is welcome news for lovers of the noble species that once freely roamed the continent in multitudes. The bison recovery is close to miraculous. They were driven to the very brink of extinction by the reckless slaughtering practices of the 19th Century. They were slaughtered indiscriminately, often from train windows by hunting tourists. They were slain for sport or for their hides, or merely to remove a critical staple from the diet of Native Americans who stood in the way of "manifest destiny".
The bison's comeback may seem impressive to us now, but let's keep those numbers in perspective. Today's lofty 1 million strong goal still pales in comparison to the natural herd numbers existing prior to slaughter of the species perpetrated in the 1800's. The Smithsonian Institute estimate of herd numbers roaming free prior to the 1800's is between 30 and 60 million! By the time efforts to save the herds commenced in 1884, it was already nearly too late for the persecuted bison. In 1902 numbers were down to 700 in private herds and just 23 in the Yellowstone herd, according to this timeline provided by the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Bison Meat: An Encouraging Trend Toward Restoration
Current bison herd numbers are encouraging. Ironically the increasing popularity of bison meat as an alternative to beef could have the most positive impact yet on bison conservation efforts. Eating bison could actually help preserve bison herds. As "the other red meat" bison is quickly coming to be known among fine dining epicureans as "the best steak you'll ever eat." Free-ranging grass-fed bison meat, with its low cholesterol, high nutrient content, appeals to organic and health-conscious consumers too. As word spreads and bison meat moves out of its current specialty niche to broader market exposure, ranchers will have more than sufficient motivation to increase the sizes of their herds.
That's good news for consumers and better news for the noble bison.
- Alistair Shipley