Once upon a time, 75 million bison roamed the western plains of North America. This was in the mid-1800s, when they outnumbered the humans 25 to one. Early settlers reported a carpet of bison as far as the eye could see. When Sitting Bull, the great Sioux chief, left Canada to surrender to the U.S. Army in 1881, he rode through a single herd for nine days, without interruption.
Bison seemed like perfect animals. The Hidatsa Indians had names for 27 cuts of bison meat. In a hurry, you could eat a bison's liver warm, seasoned with bile from the gallbladder. Women sliced the meat thin, dried it, ground it and mixed it with saskatoon berries to make pemmican for winter.
The Assiniboine boiled bison blood and brains with rosebuds and hide scrapings, while the Comanche liked the partially curdled milk from the stomachs of young calves, an early form of yogurt. Tribes stored fat in bison bladders the size of a human head. The meat was famously lean – less than a fifth of the fat of beef, two thirds of the calories. Chiefs ate 15 pounds at a sitting, and then went off to war.
Every part of a bison was valuable. (And yes, it's bison, not buffalo; though they're related, real buffalo roam only in Asia and Africa.) Twelve hides made an average-sized tipi. Over time, as Ian Frazier points out in his useful book Great Plains, the hides became more translucent and your tipi got lighter inside. You could trade bison skins for all kinds of handy items. A horse was worth six tanned bison robes. That horse, plus a tipi, two knives, a pair of leggings, a blanket and a gun, could be traded for a wife.
There were still 40 million bison when railways reached the prairie in the late 1860s. But the U.S. wanted the West for settlement and cattle ranching, and to put first nations onto reservations – which meant "destroying the Indians' commissary," as General Phil Sheridan put it. He meant the bison. "Let them kill, skin, and sell until the buffalo are exterminated," he famously exhorted hunters. "Then your prairies can be covered with speckled cattle and the festive cowboy."
By 1872, there were 2,000 bison hunters in Kansas alone; more than three million were slaughtered near Dodge City in the space of two years. The trick was to kill as many as possible in one spot for the convenience of the skinners, who left the carcasses to rot and sent the skins east to be turned into machine belts, cloaks, carriage blankets and buffing rags (the original Shamwows). The bones became fertilizer and bone china.
By 1895, Ernest Thomson Seton could verify only 800 living bison in North America.
It helps to remember that everything we eat has a history. It can tell us who we were and who we have become.
Today, to just about everyone's surprise, there are nearly 500,000 bison in North America, half of them in Canada. If the visions of people such as rancher Tom Olson come true, there will be 20 million in 20 years, and we'll eat a near-perfect meat – an animal that can, properly managed, improve the landscape it consumes and the people who consume it.
So far only 95,000 are slaughtered in North America a year, compared with 125,000 cattle a day in the U.S. alone. That's one reason bison tenderloin starts at $30 a pound. But it's increasingly popular on restaurant menus as a lower-fat, nutrient-rich and additive-free beef alternative.
Some studies suggest bringing a beef heifer to market requires the equivalent of eight barrels of oil. A bison, Mr. Olson claims, sucks up a single barrel.
With feed, drug costs and drooping prices, it's harder to make money on cows: Of late the number ranched in Alberta has dropped by a million and a half. The Canadian Bison Association has 1,400 members, and the industry is growing 20 per cent a year (what else is?).
Given the state of the food-supply system and our history with the shaggy old bison, the only terrestrial North American mammal to have survived both the Ice Age and us, a bison boom – if it really comes – would be a very forgiving miracle.
Meet the bison whisperer
At the moment, Tom Olson is on his hands and knees in the pasture of his Spread Eagle Ranch, a 2,400-acre pocket in the foothills west of Pincher Creek, Alta. He's rhapsodizing about a three-inch tuft of blue-green Idaho fescue that wouldn't look out of place on a baby's head. The way Mr. Olson tells the story – and he knows how to tell it – this plant is the start of a better future.
By day Mr. Olson is a 54-year-old, devoutly Mormon, pro-private-ownership, red-haired Calgary tax lawyer heading an international firm of 80. He, his wife Carolyn and their 10 home-schooled children (10!) have been raising bison since 1993, when he bought his first quarter-section (160-acre) ranch in Bragg Creek, west of Calgary. He added this ranch and three others in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba – 47,000 acres in total, devoted to 4,000 bison.
"We've had some oil and gas investments that have done well," he says, to explain his financing. "Dead dinosaurs and live bison."
He started with six, the offspring of the remnant bison rescued by ranchers in Montana in 1883. Their half-million cousins today are found in herds managed by the federal governments here and in the U.S., as well as the stock of private ranchers. Ted Turner, the founder of CNN, owns the most. But Mr. Olson has the largest single conservation herd.
From the outset, he noticed bison had strange habits. They grazed – through three feet of winter snow as easily as in summer – as a herd of family units, whereas cattle spread out more. Unlike cattle, they paused between bites. They ate two-thirds of what a cow consumes, and then ran – ran! – to another stretch of pasture. They were fast, too: A 2,000-pound bison can run 35 miles an hour and jump a six-foot fence.
One winter, he saw his bison meet a steep, icy driveway for the first time: They locked their front legs, sat on their haunches and slid down. Then they walked up the hill and did it again.
Within a season of grazing the wooly weirdos, his grassland was the envy of his cattle-farming neighbours. He became a student of grass, mad for fescue. Theorists maintain that the great plains were once a perfect system. The fescue (two-thirds underground) covered the plains, feeding the bison. The bison, given the way they roam and graze and split the ground, in turn cultivated the fescue like a vast army of roving rototillers.
"That's why they're the only megafauna to survive the Ice Age," Mr. Olson says. "I think it's because they go in herds. They have this collective intelligence in their DNA. And they formed the very landscape."
This ecological log-rolling lasted a couple of million years. By the turn of the last century, when Mr. Olson's Mormon great-grandmother crossed Milk River Ridge at age 6 coming from Salt Lake City to Alberta, she saw native grass as high as a horse's belly.
Then white men wiped out the bison and introduced European cattle, which can't survive on fescue. Farmers plowed it up and planted fast-growing, shallow-rooted, invasive European grasses alongside vast tracts of monoculture grain, with well-docu-
mented results – fattier, unhealthier, antibiotic- and hormone-stuffed beef, and land that has 35 per cent more runoff and erosion, even without feedlots.
The Spread-Eagle Ranch had been grazing land for cattle before Mr. Olson bought it, and was in bad shape. Today – if what you can see on a three-hour grass tour is any evidence – the Idaho fescue is making headway, begetting a quiver of native varieties.
Steve Tannas, an Alberta grassland scientist, claims fescue grasslands store carbon for 200 years, beating even the 150-year carbon sink of a forest. "If we put our fescue back," he says, "it'd be a huge carbon reclamation."
Bison help other species, too, with their rambunctious pruning of willows and saskatoon bushes: Mr. Olson claims the Spread Eagle has become habitat to three grizzlies and 13 moose.
Mr. Olson leaves the bison to do their own thing, because he can. They eat pesticide-free grass and have uncompromised immune systems, so he seldom has need of a vet; he uses no antibiotics or hormones, save an occasional de-wormer, and doesn't send them to a feed lot or finish them on grain. He won't cull a cow that doesn't calf every year, the way more output-oriented producers will. The result? Olson High Country Bison is among the most coveted bison in Alberta.
Mr. Olson gets off his knees and nods at a family of seven bison making their way across a pasture. "They're like weight-lifters," he says. "The athletes of the animal world. They don't feel like they have human characteristics, but they have enough social structure that they seem to. There's definite personality."
It's true. Mincing across the plain, hips wiggling, 1,500-pound bulks parked high over their forelegs, Mr. Olson's bison resemble hairy-chested Charles Atlases. Up close, with their fuzzy afros and shaggy chin beards and bright black eyes, they look more like randy English professors from the 1970s. They look like they should be named Gary.
But can they battle cattle?
This isn't to say that bison – or Mr. Olson – are always popular.
When bison migrate out of the northwest corner of Yellowstone National Park, as they do every winter, they get shot, as cattlemen claim bison carry brucellosis parasites, which can pass to cows and humans. Alberta's private herds have been disease-free for years, but the stigma lingers. Bison are also wilder than cattle, and have a rep for unpredictability: A trespasser was gored and bled to death on Mr. Olson's ranch this year (police cleared the ranch). YouTube features lots of "bison attack" videos.
The real issues are space, range and history. Crown and conservation land is often offered to ranchers as grazing territory, but some bison producers claim cattlemen are favoured. "You would have thought we were trying to introduce pterodactyls or something," Linda Sautner, a member of the Bison Producers of Alberta, told me one afternoon. (She and her husband have a pet bison, Bailey Jr., that comes into their house and watches TV.)
When Mr. Olson converted the Spread Eagle – former Nature Conservancy land that had been grazed by cattle – a local cattleman pulled the gates down with a pickup. Mr. Olson's high, bison-proof electrified fences are routinely vandalized. They're also criticized, by the Nature Conservancy in Calgary, for disrupting non-domesticated wildlife. Mr. Olson denies these claims.
"If a cattle gets on my land," he says, "we call the ranchers, and they say, 'Well, Tom, we'll come get it tomorrow.' If one of my bison gets out, they'll shoot it. It's hypocritical. They call them 'exotics.' Which I always find quite funny. They've got these European cattle, and we've got these indigenous animals, and we're called 'exotics.' I think they see us as a threat. They see bison as a threat to their cowboy lifestyle."
But competition between bison and cattle producers is just one factor standing in the way of 20 million bison once again roaming North America. One study estimates that task will take 100 years, not 20, even if it proves possible to reclaim a third of the bison's original habitat. (They now occupy less than 1 per cent of their original hood.)
"The biggest challenge," says wildlife biologist John Nishi, "will be in finding and securing these large landscapes."
Tom Olson is a brilliant bison salesman, in other words, but he's also a dreamer. Maybe they're the same thing.
From prairie to plate
One decisive factor is demand: "The way to save the bison," Mr. Olson says, "is to eat the bison."
To that end, he has invited 24 chefs from Calgary to hang with the herd. For two hours, they wander amongst the prehistoric beasts in a sharply grazed field. In a week the animals will be let into the high country. The herd follows the chefs up the range, intermingling like trusting freshmen on the first day of school.
Afterward they retire to the ranch house for a bison lecture, and bison cooked to emphasize less popular cuts. Producers have no trouble selling tenderloin, ribs and ribeyes, cooked to medium rare (and no more). The rest of the animal is harder to move.
"If there's a market for bison raised in a conservationist way, the people will make that market," Mr. Olson says. "And this could happen quickly. We've got millions of acres. That half a million animals could be two million, five million, 10 million – if we convert what is beef-raising land to bison-raising land. You could see millions of bison roaming the prairie again, producing healthy food for Canadians, in a matter of two or three decades."
Those are huge ifs, but Mr. Olson is on a roll. It's as if he can see his Mormon great-grandmother coming over the ridge in belly-high grass all over again.
They move into the dining room, where there's a bison head on the wall the size of the front end of a Volkswagen. They tuck into bison chili, stew, sliders, charcuterie, bison pastrami and bison carpaccio.
"Best bison around," says Chris Schlotzhauer, a chef at Calgary's Charcut restaurant.
It tastes delicious, lean and interesting, like something we once knew, even if it's never the same again.
Ian Brown is a feature writer for The Globe and Mail.