The American bison (or buffalo) is part of an ancient breed of herd animal that crossed the Bering Strait some 10,000 years ago. For centuries, millions of these shaggy beasts roamed across Canada, the U.S., and Mexico. It is believed that the sheer magnitude of the early bison populations and their grazing patterns actually shaped and altered the very ecology of the entire Great Plains area of the country.
The numbers of American bison have experienced huge peaks and troughs. For centuries, many Native American tribes have hunted buffalo for their meat and hides on a regular basis, but these hunters also utilized competent population management practices, even developing unique butchering techniques to minimize waste.
In the late 1600s and early 1700s, diseases brought to this continent by European settlers began devastating Native American tribes. With fewer hunters and a reduced need for food, the buffalo herds grew like crazy. Several oral and recorded legends claim that, for several decades, herds of bison literally stretched from one horizon to the other.
But of course, modern man could not leave well enough alone. A wave of expansion westward during the 1880s brought the American bison to the brink of extinction. Hundreds of thousands of animals were reduced to only a few hundred. Settlers not only killed buffalo for food, but also to "remove the competition" for grasslands they needed to feed their own cattle and other livestock. Western influences also put firearms into the hands of Native American hunters for the first time ever, and more than 300,000 buffalo were being slaughtered annually. The railroads, too, stuck their noses into the bison "problem." It seems buffalo herds were holding up the laying or new tracks. And the migration of a large herd could actually trap a train and force it to remain motionless for days. So the rail companies hired profesional hunters to kill as many of the "nuisance beasts" as possible.
And possibly the most bizarre influence on the decline of the American buffalo population was the growth of the industrial age. With more and more factories being built in the U.S. as well as Europe, buffalo hide ... with its unique thickness and strength ... became a critical commodity because it was ideal for making the "transfer belts" that enabled manufacturers to harness the power produced by steam engines. This was all pre-electricity, mind you,
Today, through conservation methods and the dedication of animal scientists and enthusiasts, the plight of the American bison has been reversed. Depending on who you ask, buffalo number anywhere from 500,000 to 30,000. The range is so great because many naturalists discount buffalo that are raised on ranches for the specific purpose of being used as a food source.
Most buffalo ... wild or domestic ... live in states like Montana, Colorado, Utah, and the Dakotas. Very strict guidelines for breeding and hunting help maintain a strong population. However, with interbreeding with cattle ... remember the "beefalo" craze of the late '80s? ... and even buffalo from Europe and Asia, many zoologists and animal geneticists believe that there are less than 12,000 pure American bison in existence today.
My life has had several odd intersections with the modern-day bison. When I was a kid, the Columbus Zoo opened a new exhibit within the "North America" section that featured some buffalo and other Great Plains denizens. I was so excited because they were so massive looking in the books I read and I just knew that there would be "Indians" with the zoo exhibit too ... it just made sense. What I saw on that warm and smelly Saturday were several "shaggy cows" that were tired looking, extremely dusty, and appeared to have their own excrement matted all over themselves. Not really "the look" I was expecting.
During my undergrad college years, I found a local bar that was not only lax on carding its "regulars" in regards to beer guzzling, but they also had a "buffalo" pizza made with bison meat and mozzarella cheese made from buffalo milk. For those of you that have never tasted buffalo cheese, it is wonderful. Apparently, bison have different digestive systems than traditional cows ... the milk is higher in proteins and fats and retains a number of minerals that create a richer taste and denser, more creamy texture. But while I couldn't get enough of the pizza, I also could not stomach to watch any of the bartender's make their trademark "Buffalo Shot," which combined Bailey's, small amounts of several flavored liquors, bourbon ... a brand called "Buffalo Trace" naturally ... and a splash of buffalo milk. It looked like a science experiment gone horribly wrong.
But I think my most fond "brush" with the burly bovid was the Christmas before my father died. He had been sick for a while and had not been able to enjoy one of his favorite passions ... hunting. In his hay day, my Dad had bagged many species of game ... deer, antelope, pheasant, quail, duck, rabbit, squirrel, and more. About 45 minutes north of Ohio is Dundee, Michigan, home to one of the Cabela mega sports outfitter centers. This place is roughly 225,000 square feet of everything you could possible need for hunting, camping, fishing, hiking, and boating ... even accessories for your RV and pricey furniture for your rustic cabin or summer home. It's such an overwhelming experience. There are exhibits and to-scale dioramas of all types of outdoor environments and wildlife. There's a 40-foot mountain dominating the middle of the store and a 65,000 gallon walk-through aquarium with indigenous fish.
I ended of getting my Dad a bunch of stuff ... a hat and fishing lures and gloves with replaceable chemical hand-warmers. And I got him eight different kinds of jerky ... venison, turkey, elk, and, of course, buffalo. I think I got an extra pound of it for me but it was gone before I had driven halfway home. That day I spent a fortune ... but mostly on lunch. Cabela's has a cafe. Luckily, I had talked two of my buddies into going with me and we overindulged and split several sandwiches and entrees ... like elk bratwurst, buffalo burgers, an ostrich club, and even an open-faced wild boar sandwich. My one friend needed to stop a few times on the way home ... to answer nature's harsh call ... and to purchase antacids. I just kept eating my jerky!
POINT OF RANT: Most days, I really miss ny Dad!