Bison have gone from ubiquity to near extinction to a surging industry, all in a little more than a century.
According to the 2017 Census of Agriculture, 1,775 producers raise 183,780 bison in the United States. The total number of animals in North America is estimated at 400,000. That includes herds on tribal lands, public parks such as Yellowstone, and on private preserves.
As many as 50 million roamed the West in the 1800s before European settlers moved in and began decimating the herd.
“We estimate that in 1885 there were about 750 bison left alive. That’s how close they came to extinction,” said Dave Carter, executive director of the National Bison Association. “At that time there were a handful of ranchers in the West, most of whom had contributed to the near extermination of bison. At the prompting of their wives, they went out and gathered remnants and put together what we call the five foundation herds.
“By the time we got to the 1970s, there were probably 20,000-30,000 bison out there. That’s when the commercial bison business really began to sprout. We started to see the growth in the herds. In the 1990s we saw a real explosion in the herds. The beef industry was down and people were getting concerned about all the consolidation and were looking for alternatives. Folks started jumping into the bison business.”
One of them was CNN founder Ted Turner. He invested heavily and has made an impression in the industry with his Ted’s Montana Grill restaurant chain.
“He started buying animals to stock his ranches and prices really went up,” Carter said.
Bison producers today are a collegial group, according to Carter.
“At a conference I looked out and there was Ted Turner in the audience,” he said. “Literally sitting next to him was this young couple with maybe 30 head of bison who sold buffalo burgers out of a food truck. They were visiting like old friends. Those are the bookends of our business.”
Illinois producer Clifton Howell has come around after his initial skepticism.
“I didn’t like the idea when (Turner) first got in. But he sunk a lot of money in it,” he said. “He’s actually been good for the buffalo.”
Producers teamed up in 2012 and embarked on a campaign to get bison — native to North America — designated by Congress as the national mammal of the United States. The bill was signed by President Barack Obama in 2016.
Those in the business are eager to share their successes and failures. It is a uniquely young livestock industry, as there are no multi-generation growers.
“I have never seen anything like the people wanting to help new producers get started,” Carter said. “When somebody comes in, the folks who are in the business love to help them get started. Even people who have been in the business for the last 30 to 40 years probably didn’t grow up with mom and dad raising bison. Everyone has come into it as a newcomer at some point.”
Help is on the way for the industry. Last September the Center of Excellence for Bison Studies was born in conjunction with South Dakota State University.
“They’re bringing together knowledge and helping us do research,” Carter said. “We just put out eight competitive grant awards on everything from disease to how bison digest prairie grass to meat quality.”