Bison, Buffalo, Livestock

You no doubt noticed the Ellensburg (Washington) Daily Record’s front-page article last Saturday about the Swauk Prairie Bison ranch. The long-time family ranch is currently owned by Jim Hanson, who shares management of the ground and its bison with his daughter, Jody Thayer. The story didn’t mention the striking, picturesque, setting those buffalo wander, nor did it mention how many of us – from time to time – have sat in or on our cars just watching them for a moment of peace and quiet. At any rate, I have long enjoyed watching them, and the article warmed my heart.

It got me thinking again about these iconic native bovines – not buffalo, actually, they are truly bison.

In his 1893 book “Hunting the Grisly – and Other Sketches,” Theodore Roosevelt wrote: “When we became a nation, in 1776, the buffaloes, the first animals to vanish when wilderness is settled, roved to the crests of the mountains…of Pennsylvania, Virginia and the Carolinas. …But by the beginning of the present century they had been driven beyond the Mississippi; and for the next eighty years they formed one of the most distinctive features of existence on the great plains. Their numbers were countless – incredible. In vast herds, they roamed from Saskatchewan to the Rio Grande and westward to the Rocky Mountains. They furnished all the means of livelihood to the tribes of Horse Indians…as well as to those dauntless and archtypical wanderers, the white hunters and trappers. Their numbers slowly diminished, but the decrease was gradual until after the Civil War. They were not destroyed by settlers, but by the railways and the skin hunters.

“In all probability there are not now, all told, five hundred head of wild buffaloes on the American continent; and no herd of a hundred individuals has been in existence since 1884.”

In 1894, Congress protected the Yellowstone herd.

In 1897, America’s last unprotected herd of wild buffalo – two bulls, a cow and a calf – was killed in the northeast corner of Colorado’s South Park.

By the turn of the last century, ranchers like Michel Pablo of Montana, Colonel Charles Goodnight of Texas, and C.J. Jones of Wyoming and Kansas were protecting bison on their ranch lands. It is from their efforts that virtually all the bison across the U.S. today have come.

Bison (scientific name: Bison bison) were sold as livestock as early as 1815 by Robert Wickliffe of Lexington, Kentucky. By 1845 he gave up; they were just too wild.  Mountain man Dick Wootton started with two calves in 1840 at Bent’s Fort on the Arkansas River in what is now southeastern Colorado. In 1843, in a widely reported “buffalo drive” he moved his 44 head to Independence, Missouri, sold them, and returned to his beloved mountains. By the end of the 19th century, bison were commonly ranched and sold like cattle. Today, even after 100 years of “domestication,” ranchers will assure you that bison can be wild and unpredictable “livestock.”

You have to dig a bit for today’s numbers, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) 2017 census found 183,780 U.S. bison on 1,775 private ranches and farms. Somewhere around 10,000 bison are in US federal herds (Yellowstone and others), A bit over 9,000 are in state and other public herds, and an estimated 20,000 animals are on tribal lands. In 2016, the Canadian Census of Agriculture found 119,314 bison in private herds. Based on these numbers there are somewhere around 365,000 bison in North America today.

On the other hand, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) currently estimates that there about 500,000 North American bison on private lands, and around 30,000 on public preserves – of which some 15,000 are considered wild, free-range bison not primarily confined by fencing.

The National Bison Association (www.bisoncentral.com), located in Colorado, reports something less than three dozen members in Washington. You will find most everything you want to know about the business and joys of raising bison on their webpage. Google “bison in North America” and find anything else you might wish to know.

Bison has long been touted as one of the most healthful red meats one could consume. Still, not everyone quite gets it. A couple decades back, several of us were gathered around a large platter of spicy buffalo wings. A young newbie casually asked, “So which part of the animal IS this?” We set about convincing our young colleague that they were the only white meat on a buffalo, and had to be seasoned heavily because, as the atrophied evidence of the prehistoric buffalo’s ability to fly, they simply weren’t all that good to eat straight up. We almost succeeded.

A time before Colorado buddy Norm Elliot passed, I chatted with his wife Jane about them joining us in Wyoming for our antelope hunt. Making no headway with her, I asked for Norm.  “Can’t,” she said. “He’s cooking buffalo.” Knowing Norm, I asked if this was one he’d hunted. (I was seeing him hunkered down at the fire pit behind their mountain home, searing a buffalo hump.)  “Nope,” said Jane, “He got it at King Soopers.”

You can hunt a wild, free-roaming buffalo in the Northwest or elsewhere in the U.S. or Canada, but the fact of the matter is that most will be in fences. Barring a hunt, you will find their high-quality flesh on sale at regional ranches and grocery stores right here in Paradise. Ask around.

Take the family, and go watch some icons of America.

Written by Jim Huckabay. Posted in Uncategorized

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