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In the early 1800s, an estimated 60 million bison roamed the plains of North America in herds stretching for miles. Hunters hired by the federal government killed nearly all the animals by the early part of this century. Now the bison is making a comeback. There are about 200,000 in North America. Hundreds of farmers in Minnesota and the Dakotas have gotten into the lucrative business in the past five years, and hundreds more are waiting in line to buy scarce breeding stock.
DAN WICKLANDER IS REPAIRING A GATE on one of two pastures on his North Dakota ranch where a herd of about 200 bison roam. The herd decided it was time to move to a new pasture and didn't wait for Wicklander to open the gate.
They're still more or less a wild animal. They're somewhat domesticated, but they still have that wild streak in 'em.Dan Wicklander is an old hand at bison ranching. He's been raising the massive shaggy prairie beasts since the early 1980s.
Wicklander guides his pickup truck through dry prairie grass to a spot near the bison herd. He drives slowly along, dumping a bag of vitamin supplement pellets out the window. The herd soon is milling around the truck.
It's like giving a kid some candy. They see your pickup, and they know what you're gonna do. They come runnin' for you.Dan Wicklander says he would never go back to traditional farming. He says he's selling buffalo meat for three times what he'd get for beef while spending less on feed and veterinary bills. His bison herd earns him and his family a comfortable living.
Bison raised by Dan Wicklander and dozens of ranchers from across the US and Canada are processed at the North American Bison cooperative in New Rockford, North Dakota. About 30 workers turn out a steady flow of bison burger and steak that's shipped across the country and around the world. Ken Throlson is founder and CEO of the North American Bison Coop, and one of the pioneers of the bison industry. A burly, bearded man who wouldn't look out of place wearing buckskin and toting a musket across the plains, Throlson was a veterinarian for more than a decade before making the bison his full-time vocation. With 20 years of experience, Throlson has become one of the most respected producers in the country and learned to love and respect the bison.
He's the last true free spirit. And he's just so easy to like. He's so hardy and so strong, and he asks so little of you. All he wants is a sanctuary, a place where he's left alone and has what he needs.Throlson finds delicious irony in the high price bison meat brings compared to domestic cattle.
I sometimes drive down the road and I just start laughing 'cause I think, we pushed this bison off the land and brought in cattle we had to build sheds for and wait on day and night, and these bison did it all by themselves.The bison industry is still very small. An estimated 15,000 bison were slaughtered last year in North America, compared with about 200,000 head of beef slaughtered each day. Most bison producers don't see themselves competing with beef, in part because demand for bison meat so far exceeds supply. The marketing of bison meat is based partly on the animals mystique, but largely on a comparison with beef. Bison has much higher protein and about one-third the fat of beef. Denver Buffalo Company in Denver, Colorado is the largest distributor of bison meat in the world. Company CEO Will Mcfarland says bison meat is slowly making its way into the mainstream.
We like to market it as the healthy alternative to beef because it's a catchy marketing thing and it's true. But we're no threat to the beef industry. We're just a gnat on the elephant right now.The bison population in North America is now growing at about 25 percent each year. At that rate, producers say in about 20 years the bison will again number in the tens of millions, and perhaps be the first choice of health-conscious consumers.
National Bison Association
Minnesota Bison Association
North Dakota Bison Association