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A Full Range

Buff burgers, jerky, jewelry and nearly indestructible shoes. The buffalo are back--and with them come a whole herd of products.

February 06, 1996|BERKLEY HUDSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

You may have heard about the comeback of the bison from the turn of the century, when the only place the buffalo seemed to roam was on nickels. And you may have heard about the popularity of buffalo burgers, steaks, hot dogs and even buffalo pizza.

"The great shaggy beasts are rising into national consciousness again, and they have a lot of helpers--some motivated by fun, some by profit and some by a sense of spiritual or ecological propriety," writes Bay Area ecologist Ernest Callenbach, whose "Bring Back the Buffalo!" was published in January by Island Press. The buffalo, he writes, "is becoming reestablished, both in imagery and in fact."

In the process, buffalo-fueled products are appearing in restaurants, frozen food display cases and boutiques, or on greeting cards, postage stamps, belt buckles and bolo ties. Buffalo businesses have their own World Wide Web sites. Indeed, Callenbach, citing the low-fat, low-cholesterol, low-calorie attributes of buffalo meat, writes: "A 'McBuff' burger may not be far away."

As consumer demand spurs the growth industry of buffalo ranching, byproducts increasingly are being made from hides, bones and meat, once considered commercially worthless. And now comes the latest carrier of buffalo spirit of the moment: shoes thundering across the retail landscape.

Harrison Trask of Bozeman, Mont., discovered that when buffalo hide is tanned properly, it is "soft and mellow, but strong as iron." This makes ideal shoes, says Trask, extolling the virtues of "America's original leather--field tested by Native Americans for over 500 years."

Three years ago, when Trask was fly-fishing in Yellowstone National Park, he saw a buffalo herd along the Madison River. He wondered if anyone was manufacturing shoes from bison hides. Says Tad W. Swanson, a vice president for H.S. Trask & Co.: "It was a baffling contradiction why the best leather around was not being used for shoes."

Trask had several hides tanned. "It came out so soft you couldn't make a pair of shoes," Swanson says. "Nobody knew how to tan it."

Trask went to a shoe show in Germany where he was talking with someone about the bison, distinctly North American, though often referred to similarly as the Asian buffalo. The man said he had a friend who might have a tanning recipe. Indeed, in a box in a centuries-old tannery, a recipe was found, perhaps dating from the 19th century when hides were brought from America.

Trask, who was a Reebok regional sales manager, started his own company in 1994. Now H.S. Trask & Co. shoes, designed mainly for men, compete in the "rugged casuals" market. Priced between $120 and $200, the shoes are sold in upscale stores from coast to coast, including locally at Nordstrom, Johnston & Murphy, and Boulevard Footwear & Bootery. By fall there will be 30 styles, including hiking boots, sandals, Oxfords with lug soles and a modified Doc Martens look.

Jeff Nichols, manager of Pasadena's Boulevard Footwear & Bootery, which also has stores in Santa Monica and Newport Beach, says that within three months of getting the first batch of Trasks in October, his store had nearly sold out. "If you could do that with every shoe, you'd have a very profitable store."

Boulevard salesman Mark Throckmorton says the novelty makes the shoes fun to sell. With some customers, Throckmorton shares stories of his youth in Kansas, where old-timers handed down family stories about those who saw buffalo herds so large they took three days to pass one spot.

Harrison Trask counts on this link with an American icon to boost the company's sales to 200,000 pairs annually by 2000.

To a lesser degree, other bison byproducts--such as skulls, jawbones, vests and even dog food--are becoming available.

Since November, Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills has carried briefcases and purses, handmade in Italy and distributed by the Denver Buffalo Co. "It's one of those items you have to touch and feel. Then you fall in love with it," says Ed Morrissey, a Denver Buffalo vice president. Briefcases cost $650 to $800; purses, $250 to $750.

Buffalo skulls, at $360 each, and mounted heads, which sell for up $4,600, are sold by mail order. For the less extravagant consumer, the company also offers hickory-smoked jerky and sausages to stores nationwide. Its buff dogs and buff burgers are sold at Colorado professional sports events.

The Denver-based firm, which has a hotel and two restaurants, bills itself as having the "largest buffalo marketing organization worldwide"--all started by multimillionaire Will McFarlane, who says he's doing for the buffalo what Apple's Steven Jobs did for computers.

No less ambitious is Thundering Herd Buffalo, based in Reno. The husband-and-wife team of Ann and Alan Hutchinson operates a mail-order catalog. For $127, including overnight shipping, they sell a 10-pound sampler of sirloin roast, lean steaks, stew meat and burgers.

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