Most people are aware of the near extermination of the Plains buffalo (Bison bison) in the 1870s from a high point population of perhaps 40 million in the mid-1800s. Not so widely known is the story of the restoration of the Plains buffalo and the expanding buffalo ranching scene today.
From an estimated 1,500 animals around 1900, buffalo numbers have expanded to a current U.S. population of approximately 300,000, with roughly 40 percent located in the Great Plains region. The 1996 Canadian Census of Agriculture reported an additional 45,235 bison were being raised on 745 farms across Canada. Alberta, with 334 farms and 22,782 bison, is by far the leader in production. Canadian numbers include both the Plains bison and the indigenous Woods bison subspecies.
In the United States, government herds, both state and federal, have remained relatively constant in number over the past thirty years. The percentage of buffalo owned and managed by private individuals has grown dramatically and now represents approximately 90 percent of the total population. This change in the percentage of buffalo that are privately owned has been accompanied by a shift toward treating the animal as domestic livestock by many producers.
The National Buffalo Association was founded in 1966. Its primary goal was to promote the marketing of buffalo meat and byproducts. In 1974 the American Bison Association was founded and took a more aggressive approach to the raising and marketing of the animal. In 1995 the two organizations combined to form the National Bison Association (NBA). The NBA represents more than 2,000 producers, ranging from many who raise just a few animals (fifty or less) to several large ranches each raising thousands of animals. The large, and many moderate-size, ranches typically finish animals in feedlots and market the meat on a large scale to restaurants and the public. One cooperative in New Rockford, North Dakota, processes about 10,000 animals per year.
Producers in the NBA have been increasing research into the formulation of feeds and selection of breeding stock to improve the meat-producing ability of the buffalo. They do not support the use of hormones and other such feed additives. The NBA sponsors a Gold Trophy show and sale annually in Denver in connection with the National Western Livestock Show.
Numerous state and regional associations have sprung up across the country and the Great Plains to assist in regional production and marketing. Another philosophy gaining renewed interest since the 1990s places emphasis on a more natural approach to the management, raising, and finishing of buffalo. The Great Plains Buffalo Association was formed in 1996 to network grass-fed, grassfinished- oriented producers.
In 1992, another influential organization entered onto the buffalo industry scene. That year Native American tribes formed the Inter- Tribal Bison Cooperative (ITBC). Now numbering about fifty tribes nationwide, with more than half of them in the Great Plains region, the ITBC's goal is to restore buffalo to reservation lands. The cooperative also takes a more spiritual approach to the management of buffalo. Respect for the animal and the environment is central to the tribes' care of the buffalo. With substantial land resources, the ITBC is becoming an increasingly important player in the marketing of buffalo products.
T. R. Hughes Crawford, Nebraska