ONGMONT, Colo. — The American buffalo's majestic silhouette is once again firmly established against the horizon here on the western edge of the Great Plains. The painstaking recovery from the wholesale slaughter during the 1800s is evident on grasslands and rolling hills from the Badlands of South Dakota to the base of the Rocky Mountains.
Federal agencies and environmentalists, including the likes of President Theodore Roosevelt, were in the forefront of bringing the species back from near extinction. But the bison's present-day proliferation is the result of forward-thinking ranchers who have discovered that the meat of this wide-ranging, wild animal is a sought-after gourmet delight.
As a result, the commercial production of buffalo is one of the brightest segments in an otherwise troubled livestock industry.
In the Denver area's upscale food stores, just 40 miles to the south, the distinctively lean, but surprisingly tender, buffalo T-bone steak commands a $7.50- to $8-a-pound retail price. And restaurants throughout the country, whether sporting a Wild West decor or an urbane, pastel look, also present entrees of buffalo fillet for as much as $20 per serving.
This modern embrace partially is based on the insatiable demand for exotica, but the low-fat and chemical-free meat also suits dietary concerns, according to ranchers who market the product. In fact, a recent American Buffalo Assn. study using U.S. Department of Agriculture data found that buffalo had less cholesterol than equivalent amounts of beef, chicken, canned tuna or even cod.
That buffalo would evolve into such a culinary prize is a phenomenon far removed from the mid-1800s when this deep-red meat mostly was shown disdain by the contingents that moved west to settle this part of the country. However, Native American tribes not only believed buffalo was palatable, but after butchering the animal, found uses for the non-edible remains.
Various reasons are given for why millions of these swift, powerful animals with piercing eyes were massacred about 100 years ago. Most commonly heard was that private and/or government sources believed the best way to decrease the Indian population was to decimate its major food source. The refrain at the time was: "Get rid of the buffalo and you get rid of the Indians." Another explanation was that buffaloes were obstructing construction of the railroads. Finally, hunting was encouraged by a strong market for the hides in the growing New York garment industry.
Today's commercial efforts have obtained stock primarily from herds roaming such government reserves as South Dakota's Custer State Park, the National Bison Range in Montana and Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma. Periodic reductions are needed to prevent overcrowding and depletion of the animals' natural food resources.
Buffaloes relocated to ranches have adjusted well and reproduction is similar to the rates found in the wild. In such settings, the animals also are breeding at levels 33% to 50% better than cattle.
Estimates place the number of buffalo ranches at about 1,200 and the total U.S. herd at 100,000. Precise numbers are difficult to determine because many commercial ventures raise the animals as a sideline to other livestock. Nevertheless, this slow but steady turnaround means the species is no longer threatened with extinction, according to the U.S. Department of Interior, which uses the buffalo as its official symbol.
Even so, its former precarious status still lingers in the minds of many, including such authoritative quarters as the Denver Zoo. In front of the buffalo pen, zoo officials have yet to remove an endangered-species plaque.
That position is something that buffalo ranchers, many of whom are based in Colorado, say hurts their efforts.
"Some people think that eating a buffalo burger will decrease the number remaining in this country," said Bob Dineen, manager of B-J Acres ranch, which houses a herd of 100. "Well, by consuming buffalo you're actually helping them because it encourages increased production and that means we'll bring more into the world."
Demand Exceeds Supply
The buffalo business doesn't need an extra incentive for it can not meet present demand.
For example, a former American Buffalo Assn. official in Denver recently stated that a number of Japanese food wholesalers were ecstatic when introduced to buffalo and wanted to place an export order with the group for 1,400 pounds of prime cuts.
"The association couldn't find that much meat, not even close. So, the Japanese ended up with only 60 pounds to take home with them," he said.
There is just as much difficulty satisfying local customers, considering that in a good year about 10,000 buffaloes are sent to market. Further aggravating demand is the fact that most are shipped in the fall when the animals are naturally putting on weight for the winter.