It takes a lot to get your face put on American currency. Only our most distinguished figures make the cut. Two animals have done it; the venerable eagle and the impressive American buffalo. If you come across one of the nickels that bear the buffalo's likeness, be prepared to pay a pretty penny. The novelty of the coin has raised its worth high above its face value. And the animal itself? Priceless.
A Brief History of Bison
American bison, also known as "American buffalo," are intertwined with our nation's history. When settlers arrived on our shores, there were thirty million roaming the great expanses of North America. The territory of these majestic beasts ranged from Northern Canada to as far south as Northern Mexico and spanned the country from eastern Washington State to western New York. By the early 20th century there were only several hundred left.
Many factors contributed to their decline. There was drought, exacerbated by new populations moving into previously uninhabited or lightly inhabited areas of the country and draining natural resources. Train tracks bisected the country, isolating or bisecting herds. Disease, introduced by the influx of non-native cattle, took its toll. But greed played the biggest role. Sport hunting of bison became a popular pursuit with participants shooting bison through the windows of trains designated for the purpose. The demand for the animals' fur in the states and Europe led to massive slaughter as well. But perhaps the most heartbreaking reason for the decline was the campaign led by US soldiers who killed bison to decimate Native American tribes that relied on them for food, clothing and more.
The animals were bordering on extinction when American President Theodore Roosevelt led conservation efforts to restore their populations. In 1883, Teddy Roosevelt traveled west to actually hunt the animal. But after spending some time among them he returned east with a new point of view. He championed the animal, and eventually formed the American Bison Society with William Hornaday to save them.
- The "American buffalo" is not a buffalo at all. It is a bison, a larger, more rugged animal, which was misnamed by early settlers.
- "Beefalo" are animals bred 3/8 bison and 5/8 domestic cattle to impart some of the hardier characteristics of the bison and the nutritional benefits to the meat.
- In 2016 President Obama signed into law the National Bison Legacy Act, which designates the bison as the official mammal of the United States.
The dramatic shrinking of the natural bison population caused a genetic bottleneck that has forever impacted the DNA pool of the species. As breeders mated bison to increase the stock, they sometimes crossed them with cattle. As a result, most modern bison carry at least some of that genetic material. The herd of Yellowstone National Park is one of the few that remains untainted by cattle genes. Bison have roamed continuously there since prehistoric times.
Only four percent of the nation's bison populations roam freely in our National Parks and preservers. The remaining 96 percent of bison are raised commercially for meat and hides.
There is debate, as there is in the cattle industry, over whether bison should be raised on pasture, grazing as is their nature and enjoying a grass-fed diet, which their digestive systems are designed to do. Others believe they should be grain fed to speed growth and ensure more consistent product, as cattle are in factory farming systems.
It's hard to argue that the industrial agriculture system is the better solution for an animal that is so well adapted to its environment. These hardy animals do not need shelter, even in the dead of winter. They do not need assistance calving. Their young can travel with the herd almost immediately after being born. They can live for up to forty years. Females can calve until they are thirty. They are so strong and agile, it's more difficult to pen them then to let them roam.
Although the animals are well adapted to the environment of the United States and produce meat, as described below, that is delicious and healthful, they still only represent a fraction of meat sold. About 7.5 million pounds of meat from approximately 15,000 bison are sold annually in the United States. US beef production in 2016 (commercial carcass weight) was 25.2 billion pounds.
Environmental Impact of Raising Bison
Left to their own devices, bison will migrate and graze in patterns that are not only light on the land but benefit the ecosystem they inhabit. Unlike cattle, which prefer to hover near water sources, bison drink and move on so they don't overtax land near the water's edge. They are much gentler on the land and grasses than cattle because they move around more and do not crop the grass as closely. They will eat a wider variety of plants and are much more easily supported by natural vegetation than cattle. Their hoof prints leave depressions that collect water and their dung serves as a powerful fertilizer: both assist in seedling germination and establishment.
However, the impact of raising animals is not determined by the animal but in the practices employed to raise them. Industrial agriculture can negatively impact even the most robust beast. Animals that are confined build up waste stores that pastured animals do not. Unlike animals that are allowed to graze for their dinner, those that are fed a grain diet will require that grain to be grown, harvested, transported, stored and distributed. Such a diet, foreign to the animal, can have health implications that then require treatment and often chemical inputs to address. It's a system that's bad for the animal, eater and environment combined.
Bison are formidable creatures. They are the largest mammal in North America. They stand between five to six feet tall and weigh a ton. They have horns that look like they mean business and a glaring stare that tells you they do. Their brown, often shaggy coats dress them like a mantle in the winter, protecting them from the elements. Bison have a thick hump in the back of their head made of muscle and bone that allows them to use their head to plow through deep snow.
They can run faster than thirty miles per hour and jump as high as six. They are extremely stubborn and have a reputation for being hard to herd.
Bison Nutrition and Effects on the Body
Bison is a lean meat and is not graded, like beef, with designations such as "prime" or "choice" to indicate the level of marbling (fat) that the muscle contains. It is high in protein, B vitamins, selenium, niacin and zinc.
According to USDA's Agricultural Research Service (ARS), 100 grams of raw bison (separable lean only) contains 109 calories and 1.8 grams fat. The same amount of raw beef (separable lean only, Choice grade) contains 291 calories, and 24 grams fat.
Like all meat, the diet the animal is fed greatly alters the nutritional value of the meat, milk and eggs it produces. Grass-fed meat is higher in Omega-3 fatty acids, Vitamin E, beta-carotene and Conjugated Linoleic Acid.
What to Do with Bison and How to Cook It
Bison can be substituted for beef in most recipes. However, bison is much leaner than beef so it cooks faster and, lacking the higher fat content, will dry out more quickly. Steaks should be cooked to a doneness that is no more than medium and benefit from a little extra fat, such as compound butter, in the pan. Roasts that are cooked to an internal temperature no higher than 160, for medium, will retain more of their flavor and tenderness. The same rule of thumb applies to bison burgers.
Eaters who prefer their meat to be more thoroughly cooked would do best to use cuts that favor moist heat. Chuck or round can be braised in stews or chili (recipe below) that will tenderize well done meat. Bone-in cuts such as short ribs will also stand up to low and slow cooking that tenderizes meat that is cooked through.
Another way to ensure juicy, tender results is to cook with ground bison where you can add additional fat and flavorings to round out the flavor and add some moisture to the meat. Meatloaf, meatballs, Shephard's pie or tacos would all put bison to good use with juicy results.
Bison should be refrigerated after purchase and enjoyed within three to five days. It can be frozen for four to six months. Bison is often dried and eaten as jerky.
Recipe: Bison Chili
(Serves 8-10 )
If you've never had bison before, chili is a great starter dish. It calls for ground bison, the easiest cut to find. The tomato base will compensate for the lack of fat in the meat that could render it too dry if not closely monitored. And the warm flavors of the spices support the extra beefy flavor of bison.
½ of a dried ancho chili
¼ cup olive oil
2 pounds ground bison
1 onion, diced
Salt and pepper
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon cocoa powder
About a quart of peeled, canned tomatoes (preferably home-canned), crushed by hand
2 cups cooked or canned black or pinto beans
Toppings such as sour cream, cheddar cheese, cilantro and chopped scallions
- Place the ancho chili in a heat proof bowl. Bring a cup of water to a boil and pour it over the chili. Set aside.
- In a heavy bottomed pot, brown the meat in the oil over medium heat. Remove with a slotted spoon.
- Add the onion, season with salt and pepper and sauté until translucent, about three to five minutes.
- Add the garlic and sauté until fragrant, about one minute.
- Add the spices and cocoa powder and sauté briefly to bring out their flavor.
- Add the tomatoes and reconstituted chili and simmer for about twenty minutes, until thickened.
- Using an immersion blender, puree the mixture until smooth. Return the browned meat to the pot, add the beans and simmer another ten to twenty minutes until the flavors have blended. Adjust seasoning and serve with toppings.