This is the second in a series of blogs by John Calvelli celebrating the history and conservation of the American Bison.
On Thursday, November 1, Americans of all stripes came together in celebration of National Bison Day. In doing so, they recognized the unique role that the American buffalo has played in the history, culture, and ecology of the United States.
Grazing by bison over the centuries stamped out our nation’s vast Great Plains. For Native Americans, bison are the subject of stories and myths passed down across generations. They were also a critical source food and clothing.
Today, sales of bison, or buffalo, meat in the United States are on the rise, and with good reason. Bison provide a leaner, healthier alternative to beef. A 100-gram serving of cooked bison contains 2.42 grams of fat while the same serving of beef has a fat content of 10.1 grams. That difference has made bison meat attractive to consumers, constraining the supply of market-ready animals.
To meet this growing demand, bison producers have proliferated into every state in the nation, with some 4,000 farmers and ranchers in all. Last year was one of the strongest yet for bison production – a $300 million business and a key contributor to the health of rural economies in the United States.
With nearly 200,000 bison residing on private ranches it might be hard to imagine that this iconic species, after occupying the plains of North America for thousands of years, nearly went extinct a mere century ago.
At the time of the United States’ founding, bison numbered over 30 million. Westward expansion, industrialization, and the effort by American settlers to gain an advantage over Native Americans dependent on bison led to a wholesale slaughter of this great animal in the mid-19th century. By the 1880s, only 1,000 buffalo remained.
As I discussed in my last blog, efforts undertaken by the American Bison Society, founded at the Bronx Zoo with the support of President Theodore Roosevelt, helped to restore bison numbers in the western plains of the United Sates with animals transported from the Bronx. Over the next 100 years, bison numbers rebounded to nearly a half million.
This year’s Bison Day activities spanned the country, from New Mexico and South Dakota in the west to West Virginia and Washington D.C. in the east. Kids and adults painted bison murals at New Mexico’s Wind River Ranch Foundation while South Dakota’s Museum of the American Bison hosted historical talks and a chance for youngsters to try homemade bison-shaped cookies.
National Bison Day is one of the signature components of legislation now working its way through the United States Congress. At a time of deep partisan gridlock, the National Bison Legacy Act, which would make the bison our National Mammal, boasts broad support among both Democrats and Republicans. The bill has 18 sponsors in the Senate and 13 in the House, split about evenly by party.
As our National Mammal, the bison would take its place alongside the bald eagle as one of America’s most recognized and revered animals.
A broad coalition that includes bison producers, conservation groups, and Native Americans has formed a campaign called Vote Bison (www.votebison.org) to urge all members of the U.S. Congress to support the National Bison Legacy Act. Their efforts have resulted in over 76,000 emails to national legislators in support of the legislation, which we hope to see passed this year.
In the meantime, bison producers will continue working to introduce a healthy and sustainable meat alternative to Americans. Federal regulations prohibit the use of both artificial growth hormones and growth-inducing antibiotics in bison. That helps explain why bison meat is increasingly found today in natural food stores, at farmer’s markets, and in restaurants.
Bison evolved to graze in herds to avoid predators. The action of their hooves turns the soil and buries seeds while their urine and manure provide critical nutrients. Dave Carter, Executive Director of the National Bison Association, has said, “As we introduce healthy bison meat to a new generation of Americans, we are also restoring a vital part of the ecological health to our grasslands.”
Bison have contributed so much to the history, culture and ecology of North America. It’s time now for us to give back. Vote Bison and help the bison become our National Mammal.
John Calvelli is Executive Vice President for Public Affairs at the Wildlife Conservation Society and Chair of the Executive Committee of the International Conservation Partnership (ICP), which is comprised of representatives from the major global U.S. conservation organizations.