Once upon a time, 75 million bison roamed the western plains of North America. This was in the mid-1800s, when they outnumbered the humans 25 to one. Early settlers reported a carpet of bison as far as the eye could see. When Sitting Bull, the great Sioux chief, left Canada to surrender to the U.S. Army in 1881, he rode through a single herd for nine days, without interruption.
Bison seemed like perfect animals. The Hidatsa Indians had names for 27 cuts of bison meat. In a hurry, you could eat a bison's liver warm, seasoned with bile from the gallbladder. Women sliced the meat thin, dried it, ground it and mixed it with saskatoon berries to make pemmican for winter.
The Assiniboine boiled bison blood and brains with rosebuds and hide scrapings, while the Comanche liked the partially curdled milk from the stomachs of young calves, an early form of yogurt. Tribes stored fat in bison bladders the size of a human head. The meat was famously lean – less than a fifth of the fat of beef, two thirds of the calories. Chiefs ate 15 pounds at a sitting, and then went off to war.
Every part of a bison was valuable. (And yes, it's bison, not buffalo; though they're related, real buffalo roam only in Asia and Africa.) Twelve hides made an average-sized tipi. Over time, as Ian Frazier points out in his useful book Great Plains, the hides became more translucent and your tipi got lighter inside. You could trade bison skins for all kinds of handy items. A horse was worth six tanned bison robes. That horse, plus a tipi, two knives, a pair of leggings, a blanket and a gun, could be traded for a wife.
There were still 40 million bison when railways reached the prairie in the late 1860s. But the U.S. wanted the West for settlement and cattle ranching, and to put first nations onto reservations – which meant “destroying the Indians' commissary,” as General Phil Sheridan put it. He meant the bison. “Let them kill, skin, and sell until the buffalo are exterminated,” he famously exhorted hunters. “Then your prairies can be covered with speckled cattle and the festive cowboy.”
By 1872, there were 2,000 bison hunters in Kansas alone; more than three million were slaughtered near Dodge City in the space of two years. The trick was to kill as many as possible in one spot for the convenience of the skinners, who left the carcasses to rot and sent the skins east to be turned into machine belts, cloaks, carriage blankets and buffing rags (the original Shamwows). The bones became fertilizer and bone china.
By 1895, Ernest Thomson Seton could verify only 800 living bison in North America.
It helps to remember that everything we eat has a history. It can tell us who we were and who we have become.
Today, to just about everyone's surprise, there are nearly 500,000 bison in North America, half of them in Canada. If the visions of people such as rancher Tom Olson come true, there will be 20 million in 20 years, and we'll eat a near-perfect meat – an animal that can, properly managed, improve the landscape it consumes and the people who consume it.
So far only 95,000 are slaughtered in North America a year, compared with 125,000 cattle a day in the U.S. alone. That's one reason bison tenderloin starts at $30 a pound. But it's increasingly popular on restaurant menus as a lower-fat, nutrient-rich and additive-free beef alternative.
Some studies suggest bringing a beef heifer to market requires the equivalent of eight barrels of oil. A bison, Mr. Olson claims, sucks up a single barrel.
With feed, drug costs and drooping prices, it's harder to make money on cows: Of late the number ranched in Alberta has dropped by a million and a half. The Canadian Bison Association has 1,400 members, and the industry is growing 20 per cent a year (what else is?).
Given the state of the food-supply system and our history with the shaggy old bison, the only terrestrial North American mammal to have survived both the Ice Age and us, a bison boom – if it really comes – would be a very forgiving miracle.
Meet the bison whisperer
At the moment, Tom Olson is on his hands and knees in the pasture of his Spread Eagle Ranch, a 2,400-acre pocket in the foothills west of Pincher Creek, Alta. He's rhapsodizing about a three-inch tuft of blue-green Idaho fescue that wouldn't look out of place on a baby's head. The way Mr. Olson tells the story – and he knows how to tell it – this plant is the start of a better future.