Bringing Back the Bison

I read that the U.S. Department of the Interior is transferring a few bison to the ownership of various indigenous tribes in the Midwest, to form the nucleus of what may become sizable herds. In total, indigenous peoples now own or control about 20,000 bison—not an insignificant number, unless you remember that there were once 30 to 60 million bison on the North American continent. Before people came, bison were original indigenous American creatures. I stop for a minute and think: what was that like, to have that many huge animals roaming the Great Plains of what we now call the Midwest, subsisting on the waist-high grasses that once covered the vast inland American prairie.
Tallgrass prairie once covered over 170 million acres in North America. Today less than 4% remains. Before the conquest of Europeans, indigenous peoples throughout America lived and thrived in such a country, meeting their needs for food, clothing, shelter, crafts, and warmth from the gigantic herds of bison that were here. Tribal people everywhere worshipped and respected the bison as a gift from their Creator to make their lives possible. When the U.S. government gave these small herds of bison to the various tribes, they sang and danced and performed the old ceremonies to honor the bison, their old friend. It must have been bittersweet to see how few these bison were compared to the glory days when the vast herds roamed the earth.
When Europeans came, apparently they had little use for the bison, except to realize that indigenous people depended on them for their life. And so they slaughtered the bisons by the millions to deprive indigenous people of their survival. Pioneers and settlers “slaughtered an estimated 50 million bison during the 19th century…Railroads were advertising ‘hunting by rail’, where…men fired from the train’s roof leaving countless animals to rot.” It is worth pondering for a moment what could have been in the minds of these men.
These facts are a part of the true American history, though when I went to school this was never taught. Probably it is mostly still not taught. “History is written by the victors”—a quote attributed to Winston Churchill—and it is difficult to go back and rewrite history from the reality and standpoint of those who lost out.
I have a personal relationship with bison; once a week I eat a bison burger as part of my high-protein diabetic diet. I mostly eat fish as animal protein; my once-a-week bison is my only red meat. When I was young, living in a Buddhist residential community, I was vegetarian, but now I need to follow a low-carb high protein diet to remain healthy. The bison sold in stores today (I get mine at Whole Foods) are raised by Midwest cattle ranchers who have converted their ranches to bison. These ranches are small; not that many people eat bison. I have written before about the incredible number of beef hamburgers eaten in America—an average a three burgers per person per week, 50 billion per year. Beef cattle require enormous resources of water, feed, and range land to raise, far more than bison who are native to this world and are adapted to live lean on it.
“Lean” is the operative word. Bison are very low in fat, which is one of the reasons I include them in my diet. I once tried pan frying beef burgers on the stovetop; the amount of fat that stays in the pan is mind-boggling, not to mention the fat that remains in the meat and goes into your body. After I cook a bison burger, there is virtually no fat in the pan, just juices. Originally beef cattle were lean too, but over the years they have been bred to be fatty; bison have not.
Bison is a tasty meat, as tasty in my opinion as beef. What would happen if magically all the billions of beef burgers eaten in America were to become bison burgers? All the ranchers in America could convert their stock to bison without going broke provided the market was there. Huge amounts of water would be saved, the impact on the planet would be much reduced. The tribal people who currently possess 20,000 bison could come to possess millions, and prosper from their respectful cultivation of this ancient spirit animal. Their good fortune would be well deserved.
Well, we can dream. None of that will ever happen. We are, and will be, a high fat hamburger nation, and the 30 or 50 million bison that once roamed free on the land will never return. But it is worth contemplating what once was, and what could be again if we had the will.
In San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park there is a section with a few bison, put there at some point in the past for atmosphere or for tourists. When I lived in San Francisco I used to go out sometimes to see the bison. They are impressive animals; they have a huge spirit. That spirit is not entirely gone; courtesy of the U.S. government, tribal people have been re-gifted a tiny piece of that spirit, and it is worth a few moments of our time to reflect on the many meanings that bison did and may still have for this country called America.

3 thoughts on “Bringing Back the Bison

  1. If you haven’t already read “Buffalo Nation” by Zontec, I highly recommend it! They provide an even-handed account of all of the efforts made to save the bison, mostly just a few individuals. The book does a good job bringing to attention the role women, especially Native American women, played in saving the few remaining bison. It also compares the US and Canada’s governments in terms of their policy on wildlife and how they engage with indigenous communities. Great read.

    I myself am increasingly removing animal products from my diet for ethical reasons; however, being unwilling to compromise my own health, I don’t see myself eliminating fish entirely (or at least fish oil). From a perspective of minimizing harm, rather than pure ahimsa, I’m inclined to keep large animals like cattle and bison in the diet too, provided they were raised as well in a way that’s good for grassland ecosystems. My understanding is that a significant number of field animals are regularly killed by combines when harvesting grains and pulses. I don’t want to be resigned, but that makes it difficult to content myself by simply avoiding animal products.

    • Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams is a gritty, gripping classic about one of the last buffalo hunts.

  2. Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams. A great Western classic about one of the last Buffalo hunts.

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