Popularity of bison meat fueling comeback

Published: Sunday, Dec. 12 2010 9:00 p.m. MST

ANTELOPE ISLAND — The 30 bison bulls emphatically exhale miniature clouds into the wintry air with every breath on a recent morning. It's probably the last Saturday any of them will live to see. Each occupies his own 10-by-25-foot pen, but most of the beasts stand perfectly still.

Weighing in at 1,650 pounds, Bison No. 230 maintains a raised tail in an unmistakable display of agitation and aggressively paws the ground if anyone enters his direct line of sight. Across the aisle, Bison No. 217 slowly paces the perimeter of his pen.

A temporary tent is erected nearby especially for this, the sixth annual Antelope Island Bison Auction, on Nov. 13. From inside the tent an auctioneer's rapid-fire delivery emerges as one endless, indistinguishable stream of speech.

When the dust settles and the auctioneer finally falls silent near noon, the 196 animals have collectively fetched nearly $300,000. The average price this year for a 2-year-old bull is $2,002 — more than double the $818 a bull went for at this same auction just five years ago.

Call it a comeback: bison are booming like never before since staving off extinction at the end of the 19th century.

Historians estimate the North American bison population once numbered as high as 30 million. But after the Civil War ended and while the Transcontinental Railroad was being built, buffalo began to be slaughtered in droves for their tongues and hides, the rest of the carcass often left to rot in the sun. During the 25-year period beginning in 1870, the bison population plummeted from tens of millions to a measly 800 head.

Today the North American bison population numbers approximately 450,000. Ninety-five percent of those animals reside in privately owned herds, part of an industry made possible by the growing demand for bison meat.

"In a lot of places in the country, grocery stores carry at least ground bison and the higher-end stores carry more of a selection in the fresh-meat case," said Jim Matheson, assistant director of the National Bison Association, based in Westminster, Colo. "It's a lot more available than it was even five years ago. As more restaurants put it on their menu and consumers demand it more, it ends up on the grocery shelves."

Federal law prohibits the use of growth hormone on bison. They grow up eating range grass, and it takes the bison longer to reach their mature weight than other commercial meat sources such as beef, poultry or pork.

The appeal of bison meat is significantly health-driven. Bison literally live out on the range, eating only grass, while cattle spend a good chunk of their lives in feed lots, eating corn. A study by North Dakota State University indicates that a single serving of bison contains 143 calories and 2.4 grams of fat while the same portion of top-grade beef clocks in with 201 calories and 8.1 grams of fat.

"As more consumers learn about the many qualities of bison meat being a very nutrient-dense and lean protein source, it's becoming more popular," Matheson said. "As a result we've seen consumer demand pick up over the past 10 years quite significantly."

In 1893, William Glassman and John Dooly introduced 12 bison — four bulls, four cows and four calves — into the Antelope Island ecosystem. At the time, the dozen animals represented approximately 1 percent of the entire North American bison population.

With naturally thick coats to insulate them from the harsh winds that roll off the Great Salt Lake, the hardy bison quickly took to their new island home. The herd now numbers around 500 head. To keep the population at a consistent level, new births necessitate that nearly 200 bison are annually sold off at auction.

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