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Bison History

odern bison consist of two species, both descended from several ancient variations. By far most common is the Bos Bison version, the North American plains bison that most people envision when buffalo are discussed. The other variation is Bison Athabascae or wood buffalo, which exist in quite limited numbers, primarily in Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Park. Wood buffalo were never particularly numerous, especially not in comparison to their plains-dwelling cousins who inhabited the vast grasslands of central North America in mind-boggling numbers, perhaps well in excess of thirty million.
Both species evolved from common ancestors who (according to the conventional wisdom) migrated across the Bering land bridge along with our human predecessors. As they migrated south into the Great Plains, they evolved to fill the ecological niche provided by the seemingly endless plains and grasslands that comprise the center of the continent, and fill it they did! Bison evolved as uniquely adapted herbivores to this verdant if often harsh ecosystem, and their modern descendants remain uniquely adapted to life on the Great Plains. More than that, they became an essential component of a uniquely complex and intertwined ecosystem. Aldo Leupold speaks of the “Matrix” of wildlife in his writings, and how removal of any component has unforeseen ripple effects on the system as a whole. The unprecedented slaughter and near-extinction of what must have seemed an inexhaustible bison resource in the late 1800’s left a void that remains largely unfilled to this day, although increasingly more and more ranchers are coming to see that our native cattle, the buffalo, are tremendously more suited to our climatic conditions than their post-extirpation replacements; cattle descended primarily from European seed stocks that evolved in a vastly different setting.
Early explorers reported mind-boggling numbers of bison on the Great Plains. Of course, those explorers were preceded by Native Americans who had already developed an extensive culture based largely if not completely around buffalo. Unfortunately, their legends and history were largely verbal, not counting paintings on buffalo robes, and so we’re left with only the written reports of what are in comparison late-comer explorers of mostly European descent. Not to complain, those accounts are fascinating, and journals of early ventures like the Lewis and Clark Expedition marveled at the seemingly endless bison herds that filled the plains. I recall reading reports from as late as the 1870’s, when an expedition of what became the Royal Northwest Mounted Police were near perishing in the country north of the Sweetgrass Hills in Montana and sent a couple of envoys south to Fort Benton on the Missouri River for help. They reported they were never out of the sight of bison on that journey. Of course, that begs the question how an expedition could perish in the middle of such plenty, but anyway…
Unfortunately, in what has to be one of, if not the most egregious example of blatant slaughter and waste in human history these seemingly uncountable numbers of buffalo were driven to the brink of extinction by hide hunters from roughly 1860-1880. By 1883 only a relative handful of survivors endured, and were preserved by a few far-sighted visionaries, who we all owe an enormous debt. Eventually these herds grew to the point that some were used to stock what became the National Bison Range near Moise, MT, as well as Yellowstone Park. Some remained in private ownership, and surplus bison from the Bison Range were (and continue to be) sold to private individuals to build their own herds.
Today bison number a bit over 350,000, mostly in private herds. Many progressive ranchers see the advantages of bison over cattle, consumer demand continues to grow, and while it’s unlikely we’ll see vast herds numbering in the millions again, many feel the “Big Open” country of Montana, Wyoming, and the Dakotas should be repopulated with bison, and several pilot projects to that end are underway.
The bison meat we sell comes from animals that roam immense landscapes. Perhaps not in comparison to their ancestors, but still-substantial 100,000 acre plus properties managed for bison and other wildlife. They're minimally handled, and for all practical purposes wild. By harvesting this renewable natural resource, you can not only nourish yourself with some real meat, but help restore bison as part of a sustainable Great Plains ecosystem that flourished once, and can again.



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