The American bison is back! There are more buffalo grazing on the grasses of this nation now than there have been since the mid-1800s. According to the American Bison Association in Denver and the National Buffalo Association in Fort Pierre, S.D., there are between 60 to 80 thousand head of bison in America and another 10 to 20 thousand in southern Canada. That's not many compared to the estimated 60 million that inhabited North America when Columbus discovered it in 1492, or even compared to the 20 million that still roamed the Great Plains in the 1850s. But compared to the 254 that existed in the entire world (one was in a zoo in Calcutta, India) in 1910, I think it is safe to say the American bison is making a comeback!

There seem to be three major reasons why the past few years have seen an accelerated growth in people's interest in the buffalo, according to several of the producers I have talked to across the country.One is the tremendous interest that has developed in the past decade or so (since the bicentennial in '76, I think) in "American Cuisine."

Whatever that is, it must include the American Bison. The only other meat products that I can think of truly indigenous to America are the country ham and feedlot beef.

The second reason has to do with perceived or perhaps real, but in any case well publicized, health benefits of buffalo meat. Buffalo is reported to have 25 to 30 percent more protein than most other domestic meats, less than half the cholesterol and about one third the fat and calories. I'm not sure I "buy" all that, but then I have come to suspect any nutritional claim made by almost anybody who wants to sell me something. What I do buy when I buy buffalo is taste. Buffalo steak comes about as close to being what a good steak should be as any steak I've had in a long time.

I find it interesting that all of the millions of American bison that were slaughtered on the western plains in the late 1800s were not killed for their meat. It was the buffalo hide that was prized. Buffalo hides brought as much as $1500 in London and Paris. That's a lot of money even today. Imagine how much it was in 1880. The only other part of the buffalo that was not left to rot in the hot prairie sun was the tongue. That was the only part the "white man" had any taste for.

In 1870, according to Western historian Sam Arnold, 72 freight cars loaded with nothing but buffalo hides and tongues were shipped out of Denver to the east. Tongue today is not as popular as it once was, nor are hides; `tis buffalo steak that folks have discovered a taste for. "Buffalo steak," Sam says, "tastes the way a beef steak would like to taste."

Sam, owner of The Fort restaurant, 18 miles southwest of Denver, may well have cooked more buffalo steaks than any man in the history of the American West. He certainly knows more about the beast than any other man I have ever met. He serves about 800 meals on a good week at The Fort and he estimates at about 35 percent of those are bison steaks. That certainly qualifies him as an experienced buffalo steak man.

Sam grills the steaks over charcoal, after first coating both sides well with oil. After turning, the steaks are seasoned with his own "Western Seasoning Salt"; a mixture of 1/3 garlic salt, 1/3 equal amounts of red and black pepper, and 1/3 lemon crystals. (Lemon crystals can be found in the spice section of most supermarkets; in drug stores, where they're labeled "citric acid crystals"; or in Jewish deli's, where they will likely be called "sour salt.")

While you are not apt to find buffalo meat in the meat case of your local supermarket in the immediate future, at the rate the national herd of American Bison is growing it won't be long. There are a growing number of ranchers, large and small, raising buffalo. Some like the Hulk Ranch in Pierre, S.D., have 3000 head or more; others, like Wray and Roma Dawson at Phistlewood Farms in Chantilly, Va., have only 75 to 80 head. "They're fun to raise," Roma told me, "good to eat, and they kind of help us make ends meet."

Most producers sell to consumers by direct mail either from their own USDA-inspected plant or through a USDA-inspected processor. All sell steaks and roasts and ground buffalo, some sell buffalo sausage products and jerky and a few even sell that epicurian delight of days gone by - buffalo tongue. Here are some places you can buy buffalo today.

- Durham Night Bird Game & Poultry Co., 650 San Mateo Ave., San Bruno, CA 94066; (415) 873-5035

- Butterfield Buffalo Ranch, Beloit, KS 67420; (913) 738-2336

- Hulk Buffalo Ranch, P.O. Box 995, Pierre, SD 57501; (605) 567-3624

- Phistlewood Farm, Rt. 1 Box 448, Chantilly, VA 22021; (703) 754-4947

- B&B Buffalo Ranch, Rt. 1 Box 154, Elloicottville, NY 14731; (716) 699-8813

- Enzed Traders, Inc., PO Box 3257, Ann Arbor, MI 48106; (313) 663-6987

- Rocky Mountain Natural Meats, Inc., PO Box 16668, Denver, CO 80216; 1-800-327-2706