🦬 Bringing Back the Roaming Bison

Innovation: The American bison, declared the national mammal in 2016, has a hallowed position in North America’s mythologies and environmental history. The bison were a keystone species on the Great Plains, with over 30 million migrating across the continent. However, bison herds were decimated in the 1800s until only a few hundred survived by 1900. Settlers moving westward hunted bison for sport and for their furs, as well as attempted to cut off a major food supply to the native peoples. Combined with diseases coming from the bison’s European bovine cousins, the cattle, the bison reached near extinction. However, in the 1900s, conservation efforts protected the bison, and now between 400,000-500,000 are spread throughout the continent (for context, there are 93.6 million head of cattle). 85% of U.S. bison (along with 90% of grasslands) are privately owned. Regenerative grazing of cattle mimics the behavior of bison: frequent movements between areas, letting the ground heal, and working in tune with nature. With the re-emergence of larger bison populations, albeit isolated ones, and the rise of regenerative grazing, an underlying tension comes into play: bison are a powerful conservation tool and symbol, but what role do they play in building a scalable regenerative food system?

Bison have proven to be a purveyor of a variety of ecosystem services, and the market for bison meat has been heating up. They’re gaining a foothold as attractive livestock for the following reasons:

  • Ecosystem Services: Bison increase plant diversity, store carbon in the soil, and create a favorable habitat for a biodiverse environment.  In the only study of its kind, ecologists found that adaptive multi-paddock grazing with bison improved soil carbon stocks, litter cover, water infiltration, forage biomass, species composition, and soil function when compared to continuous cattle grazing at 777 bison ranch. For example, they rub against woody shrubs and break them down, allowing the grass underneath to get sunlight. They also wallow on the ground and create what becomes small watering holes. Their hooves break deeper into the soil, allowing for aeration, while their hide disperses native seeds over vast terrains. Be it in their nitrogen-heavy urine or their seasonal changes in metabolism to match forage availability, bison are uniquely attuned to the ecology around them.

  • Symbolism and Food Sovereignty:  Native American tribes, who were most directly affected by the fall of the bison, are leading the way to introducing roaming bison to their lands and also getting into the bison ranching and processing business. 30 tribes signed a treaty to bring the bison to over 6.3 million acres of land, and tribes in New York and Oklahoma are building out processing capacity while using their land primarily for bison meat production. Many native tribes making the shift to bison from cattle are using historical framings, emphasizing the importance of self-reliance for food (especially in the wake of COVID) and finding innovative ways to be land stewards. 

  • Processing and Nutrition: Bison meat has an extremely low-fat percentage (3-5%) and is extremely nutrient-dense in proteins, Omega-3 fatty acids, and iron, especially when compared to grain-fed beef (albeit not to grass-finished cattle). Bison lack marbling but present an economically competitive red meat given the velocity of the bison market taking off (see chart below). As a USDA non-amenable meat, they also do not need to be processed at a USDA-inspected facility to be sold in the state - greatly reducing processing costs.

However, various barriers still exist to scaling regenerative bison ranching - and whether it's worth it at all compared to having bison be a conservation priority. The three key areas here are:

  • Bison Genetics: The fall of the bison population in the 1800s created a major genetic bottleneck for both bison on conservation lands and bison ranches. Though there is a small portion of cattle hybridization(into the “beefalo”), the lack of genetic diversity within bison populations has the potential to compound because herds are operating in isolation, leading to disease susceptibility. Brucellosis, which came from European bovines, is a key risk to wild herds, and cattle ranchers out west are careful to avoid contamination. Additionally, ranchers cannot mix sheep or goats with bison, as they are carriers for malignant catarrhal fever (MCF), which can wipe out entire herds. Combine genetics issues with recent research correlating bison shrinkage with rising temperatures and there are long-term financial risks to bison ranches.

  • Bison CAFOs: According to Wild Idea Buffalo, 90% of bison are finished on confined animal feeding operations, where they can’t roam and graze (if this number seems high - a USDA survey found that less than half of bison ranches do any rotations, and most of those would send cattle to CAFOs to finish). Much like with cattle and poultry CAFOs, this leads to environmental pollution, animal welfare issues, and lower meat quality. In fact, feeding bison high concentrate finishing diets can cause ruminal acidosis and myriad health complications.

  • Ranching Expertise Required: Bison are free-roaming creatures who are particularly difficult to transport, process, and handle. They can jump up to six feet high, break fencing, and require a much more sophisticated infrastructure than cattle. Furthermore, they are fundamentally herd animals: bison should not be left alone, as that will cause agitation. Bison can frequently break loose if there is not a proper infrastructure - and even if you have it, they are still forces of nature.

Much like cattle, bison are ultimately a tool towards ecological restoration and a better food system, one whose legacy we must respect. Bison ranches are difficult to operate and bison are meant to roam around hundreds of thousands of acres in herds of thousands. Though some bison ranching helps out specific ecosystems (like 777 bison ranch and SHAPE ranch) and indigenous communities, bison are ultimately catalytic to a more regenerative world when they are wild, not domesticated. Bison built the “green wave” of the Great Plains with their foraging, and such a scale is necessary for bison to regenerate our grasslands. Ted Turner has amassed fifteen ranches with over two million acres of land and 45,000 bison - an admirable ambition, especially given he was a first-mover in the space, but such a project does not re-wild the bison. The scale needed is like that proposed by the American Prairie Reserve: 3.2 million continuous acres in Montana. We need megafauna nationalism both politically and symbolically, but ultimately a bison-based food system will not scale regenerative agriculture. Conservation-oriented thinking at large will unlock the ecosystem service potential of the bison, while bison can remain a niche product in the regenerative food economy.

Read: Steven Rinella’s American Buffalo: In Search of a Lost Icon is a poignant take on the role of the bison in our national history and present. Rinella, now known as the “meateater”, goes through the journey of a modern bison hunt starting with finding a bison skull, but also re-tells the story of the bison and their tragic fall. I quite liked American Buffalo for how Rinella meditates on our relationship with animals and hunting. Sportsmen ultimately saved the bison in America, and Rinella keeps that legacy going.  I attended an open field harvest for a bison earlier this year, and it was an overwhelming experience, albeit one that made me feel more connected to the animal and the meat I consumed.

Savor: Seal the Seasons works with farmers on a state-by-state basis to freeze their produce in season and offer it year-round in local grocery stores. Their products are available based on what is grown in specific regions, and their brand emphasizes the local sourcing from specific farms on their packaging. Having tried their Florida strawberries when I’m back home, I can speak to their flavor - though hopefully, they’ll be in Texas soon. Check out their map here to find out where you can buy their produce!

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