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A BRIEF HISTORY OF BISON


    Photo courtesy Blanbrook Bison Farm

      North America's Original Lean Red Meat Has Returned

  • Only in the last 10 to 15 years can it be said that North American Bison have returned from the near extinction they faced in the 1890s. What was once decimated to less than 2,000 in number has, through careful breeding and nurturing, returned and flourished.

    Today it is estimated that the total herd size is in the 500,000 range, about 250,000 of which are based in Canada. This of course is a far cry from the approximate 50 million animals that roamed the western ranges prior to European settlement. However, today's herd size is still substantial enough to sustain bison meat consumption to a point where it is expected to quadruple by the year 2010.

    There is plenty of room for growth for this all-natural non-genetically altered lean red meat. North Americans love their red meat. In Canada, annual beef consumption per capita exceeds 60 pounds, while bison is less than 1/2 a pound. With consumer trends leaning towards more naturally raised meat, a similarity between beef and bison cuts, and stable if not lower consumer prices anticipated, bison product growth and usage is expected to be nothing less than dramatic for the foreseeable future.


 History of Bison Usage:

  • Originally, the Native Plains Indians of North America used just about every part of the bison. Their lives revolved around the availability of bison (see chart). But by the 1890s this all changed as the bison were being eliminated by European settlers. This occurred for two reasons.

    First, there was the greed factor. For a good part of the 1800s bison were considered to be in limitless supply. For non-native buffalo hunters they were the equivalent of a gold mine on four legs. This group hunted bison from trains and horseback for their tongues, hides, bones and little else. The tongue was, and still is considered a delicacy. Hides were prepared and shipped to the east and Europe for processing into leather. Remaining carcasses were, for the most part, left to rot. By the time nothing but bones remained, they too were gathered and shipped via rail to eastern destinations for processing into industrial carbon and fertilizer. By the 1890s with numbers nearing extinction, the bison 'gold rush' was over.

    At the same time, the American government openly encouraged elimination of the Plains Indians' primary food source, the bison. In so doing, the Indians would be forced into relatively small areas, or north into Canada. In either situation, food sources were either scarce or non-existent. The results were starvation, and high infant mortality amongst the Indian populations. In the end the west was open to European settlement and the start of the western beef industry.

    You can find an excellent account of the 1890s Buffalo Hunts (here) from the History News Network.

    Also highly recommended is the book American Buffalo by Steven Rinella which is a more comprehensive history of bison and 14,000 years of buffalo hunting in North America. You can read the first chapter here for FREE!


More than the meat....Plains Indian Bison Usage Chart:


Horns:
Arrow Points
Utensils (cups, ladles, spoons)
Powder horns
Decorative headdresses
Medication

Bones:
Knives, Pipes
Arrowheads
Splints
Shovels
War clubs
Fat:
Candle Tallow
Lubricant
Soap

Tails:
Ornamental Decoration
Fly brush
Whip
Hair:
Decorative headdresses
Ropes
Pad and pillow filler
Moccasin lining

Muscles:
Glue
Thread
Arrow ties
Stomach Liner:
Water container

Gall and Blood:
Decorative Paint
Skull:
Rituals

Beard and Teeth:
Ornamentation
Bladder:
Medicine Bag

Hooves:
Glue
Scrotum:
Ceremonial rattle

Liver:
Hide Tanning
Manure Chips:
Fuel
Tendons:
Sewing
Bowstrings

Hide:
Moccasins
Buckets
Drums
Splints
Ropes
Saddles and Stirrups
Snow shoes
   



Today, meat is the primary revenue generator for the bison industry. In addition, businesses that make use of other parts of the animal have flourished as well.

For Instance:
Skulls are bleached and used for decorative purposes.
Horns are made into decorative polished costume jewelry and buttons.
Hair is manufactured into sweaters, coats and robes.
Hides are used for the manufacture of leather furniture. (Everything from foot stools to full size sofas are available.)
Bison leather is also used for the manufacture of hats, coats, vests, ha
ndbags, shoes and boots.
You can even purchase a Tanned Hide Teepee in today's market.