Where the buffalo pan-fry

BY ASHLEY SCHWELLENBACH

“Aren’t they supposed to be extinct,” ranted a friend, narrating her drive-by encounter with what appeared to be a herd of bison in Northern California. The nearest proof that bison are not, in fact, extinct was sitting in a freezer of the meat section at Star Market in Salinas.

The fact is, bison are staging a comeback. The majestic beast that once roamed the North American plains has found a way to co-exist with modern man: from between two hamburger buns and a slab of cheese.

“The bison population is more robust than it has been in 100 years,” assured Jim Matheson, Assistant Director of the National Bison Association. “We credit that to the market for bison meat.”

Prior to the settlement of the western United States an estimated 40 million bison roamed North America. The horned behemoth is forever burned into the collective American conscience as an icon of the west, and early victim of human greed. By the time the US Census declared the American frontier closed in 1890, bison in North America numbered fewer than 1,000. Railroad monopolies wanted the bison gone; at 800 to 2,000 pounds apiece, a herd could do a great deal of damage by colliding with a train. And the hides were valuable enough that hunters were happy to oblige.

A 2007 U.S. Department of Agriculture census reports that there are now 450,000 bison in North America; all but 20,000 reside on private ranches and farms. South Dakota has the largest bison population at 38,701, as of 2007. California falls 17th with 2,441. This statistic did not come from California’s Department of Food and Agriculture.

“California doesn’t have bison,” insisted the employee that answered the Livestock Statistics line at the California Department of Food and Agriculture. “You’ll have to call a state that does.”

There are currently 4,499 ranches raising bison in the United States. Last year, 70,000 bison were slaughtered, more than doubled from 2002.

It’s a small wonder that farmers are anxious to get into the bison business. According to nutritional comparisons provided by the National Bison Association, a six-year-old organization that calls itself “a community bound by the heritage of the American bison/ buffalo and the quality of its products,” bison meat has one-third the fat of chicken and about one-fourth the fat of beef. The cholesterol content is lower than that of beef, pork, chicken, and salmon.

At Star Market, ground bison—packaged in nondescript seal wrapped containers and identified by the misnomer “buffalo”—sells for $6.98. But the cheapest bison steak sells for $10.59 per pound, and the most expensive for $21.99 per pound. The market’s most expensive beefsteak sells for $12.79 per pound. A third bison product, bison and beef hot dogs, situated on the same shelf as clams and a meat called young rabbit, sells at $8.39 for a four-pack.

Kathy and Ken Lindner purchased their first bison in 1997. They now own between 100 and 120—the numbers vary depending on the season—which reside on their Northern California spread of land, called Heritage Ranch. Like the much larger beef industry, there is a movement within the bison industry that’s calling for a greater emphasis on natural, chemical-free diets for livestock. The Lindners are proud proponents of this movement; their bison are grass-fed, which translates to grazing in pastures in the summer and a diet of hay in the winter.

“My husband and I are hoping that the bison industry doesn’t make the same mistakes the beef industry has made,” said Kathy. For the Lindners, these mistakes can be summed up by two words: growth hormones.

Taking a naturalistic approach to raising bison mostly means leaving them alone. The Lindners don’t rely on artificial insemination to increase their herd. The bison are left to form the same social structure they would without human influence; that is to say, the bulls and cows remain together year-round. They’re not domestic livestock, Kathy points out. Bison are hardier, and have survived—though just barely—centuries of hunting and human encroachment.

In captivity, the average lifespan for bison is 20 to 25 years. It takes a minimum of three years for bison to attain the necessary weight for them to be sent to the slaughterhouse, four years for the females. “We use the word ‘harvest.’ It’s more honest,” said Kathy of the transition between living, breathing mammal and steak.

Despite the fact of their being in the business of eating and selling them, the Lindners cite the opportunity to interact with bison as a rare and meaningful privilege. They are intimates of icons believed to be extinct by the majority of Americans, and mistakenly identified as buffalos by the remainder. And they’re happy to divulge what they’ve learned, though the words are more difficult to find than when the primary subject is dietary habits and health benefits.

“They’re relaxed. They’re pretty laid back because there’s not much that can hurt them. But they are a wild animal and they are extremely powerful,” cautioned Ken. “If they feel threatened they can do great harm. As long as you respect them and treat them as bison you do just fine.”

Bison are farmed for other purposes as well. Cedar Canyon Ranch in Tehachapi, California, southwest of Bakersfield on Route 58, sells the right to hunt such exotic game as European boars and the bison. The price to hunt and kill a European boar is a cool $600, but the price to kill the icon of the west is $2,200 discounting additional services like skinning, which costs $250.

And the 20,000 bison that roam free of human interference and consumption, what the National Bison Association refers to as “public herds”?

“It’s a relative term what roaming free means because everything’s fenced,” explained Matheson. The largest population of independent bison is in Yellowstone National Park and numbers around 3,500. San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park has a bison paddock with 11 females. Santa Catalina Island is home to 150; the herd began with 14, which were brought to Santa Catalina during filming of The Vanishing American. With no money left at the conclusion of filming, the crew decided to leave the bison on the island rather than absorb the cost of returning them.

Brewster Higley’s dream of “a home where the buffalo roam” is certainly a greater possibility now than it was when he first wrote the poem that would become “Home on the Range” in 1873. After all, he neglected to specify the square yardage required to roam, and his paean to rural America doesn’t denounce bison burgers. Whether his vision encompassed bison packed into a feedlot or not is moot; the choice between extinction and the grill is hardly noble, but it’s a dilemma that humans have already resolved on behalf of the quadruped.

“We always like to mention our website,” Matheson dished out the last of his bison wisdom. “It’s got information and a lot of good recipes.”

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