Real Food Encyclopedia | Bison
With its lean meat and light environmental footprint, the American Bison is enjoying a new spotlight among health and eco-conscious eaters. But the bison -—sometimes called the buffalo — has a much longer history. Foundational to Native American diets and livelihoods, the bison was nearly eradicated as European settlers pushed westwards, intentionally slaughtering the massive bison herds to force native people off their land. While conservationists recognized the value of the bison to prairie ecosystems in the 20th century and rebuilt populations, the bison population is still a shadow of its former self. In the right hands, the expansion of bison ranching could lower the environmental impact of the US food system and help to give native tribes control of their lands. Choosing pasture-raised, ethically sourced bison meat is key to supporting this vision.
Fun Facts about Bison:
- In 2016, President Obama signed into law the National Bison Legacy Act, which designates the bison as the official mammal of the United States.
- Bison are the largest mammal in North America. They stand between five to six feet tall and weigh a ton.
What to Look for When Buying Bison
Bison is a lean meat and is not graded, like beef, with designations such as “prime” or “choice” to indicate the level of marbling (fat) that the muscle contains.
For the most sustainable product, look for Bison that is pasture-raised or grass-fed. If it is available, try to buy the meat locally at your local farmers’ market. If you’re ordering online, consider supporting a native-owned ranch.
Sustainability of Bison
Left to their own devices, bison will migrate and graze in patterns that are not only light on the land but benefit the ecosystem they inhabit. Unlike cattle, which prefer to hover near water sources, bison move around the land more, sparing the delicate ecosystems along the banks of streams and ponds.. They also graze differently from cattle, going first for grasses and leaving patches where other plants can fill in, helping to increase biodiversity on pasture. Their hoof prints leave depressions that collect water and their dung serves as a powerful fertilizer: both assist in seedling germination and establishment.
Despite their unique adaptations to living on the plains, some ranchers have tried to raise bison industrially like cattle using confined spaces and grain-heavy diets. . This negates the positive impacts bison can have on the environment. Animals that are confined build up waste stores that pastured animals do not. Unlike animals that can graze for their dinner, those that are fed a grain diet will require that grain to be grown, harvested, transported, stored and distributed. Such a diet, foreign to the animal, can have health implications that then require treatment and often chemical inputs to address. It’s a system that’s bad for the animal, eater and environment combined.
American bison, also known as “American buffalo,” are intertwined with the lives of indigenous people and the history of the US. When European colonists arrived o, there were thirty million bison roaming the great expanses of North America. The territory of the bison ranged from Northern Canada to as far south as Northern Mexico and spanned the country from eastern Washington State to western New York. But by the early 20th century, there were only several hundred left.
Many factors contributed to their decline. There was drought, exacerbated by new populations moving into previously uninhabited or lightly inhabited areas of the country and draining natural resources by plowing up and fencing off the rich prairie. Train tracks bisected the country, isolating or bisecting herds. Disease, introduced by the influx of non-native cattle, took its toll. Sport hunting of bison became a popular pursuit with participants shooting bison through the windows of trains designated for the purpose. The demand for the animals’ fur in the states and Europe led to massive slaughter as well.
Most significantly, however, they were intentionally eliminated because of their connection to the native people who depended on them. In order to “civilize the West” and force native people off their land, US soldiers led a bison eradication campaign. Buffalo bounty hunters killed millions of animals and disrupted the ecosystems of the high plains so much that many tribes like the Lakota Sioux had no choice but to surrender to life on reservations as a last chance to survive. The animals were bordering on extinction when American President Theodore Roosevelt led conservation efforts to restore their populations in the late 19th century.
The dramatic shrinking of the natural bison population caused a genetic bottleneck that has forever impacted the DNA pool of the species. As breeders mated the animals to increase the stock, they sometimes crossed them with cattle. As a result, most modern bison carry at least some of that bovine genetic material. The herd at Yellowstone National Park is one of the few that remains untainted by cattle genes. Bison have roamed continuously there since prehistoric times.
Only four percent of the nation’s bison populations roam freely in our National Parks and preserves. The remaining 96 percent of bison are raised commercially for meat and hides.
Current efforts to restore prairies and raise the animals sustainably are turning back to indigenous knowledge about managing the animals in their environment. Giving native people control over bison conservation not only ensures that traditional knowledge can benefit the environment, but it also gives tribes financial ownership over resources that were forcibly taken from them.
However, there is debate among ranchers over whether bison should be raised on pasture, grazing as is their nature and enjoying a grass-fed diet, which their digestive systems are designed to do. Others believe they should be grain fed to speed growth and ensure more consistent product, as cattle are in factory farming systems.
It’s hard to argue that the industrial agriculture system is the better solution for an animal that is so well adapted to its environment. These hardy animals do not need shelter, even in the dead of winter. They do not need assistance calving. Their young can travel with the herd almost immediately after being born. They can live for up to forty years. Females can calve until they are thirty. They are so strong and agile, it’s more difficult to pen them than to let them roam.
Although the animals are well adapted to the environment of the United States, they still only represent a fraction of meat sold. About 7.5 million pounds of meat from approximately 15,000 bison are sold annually in the United States. US beef production in 2016 (commercial carcass weight) was 25.2 billion pounds.
Bison should be refrigerated after purchase and enjoyed within three to five days. It can be frozen for four to six months. Bison is often dried and eaten as jerky.
Bison is a staple food for many indigenous people in North America, and traditional soups and roasts are still widely prepared. Pemmican, which combines bison jerky with berries and fat to create a nutritionally dense, long-lasting snack, is one of the best known native bison dishes, though other meats are also used. Native chefs like Sean Sherman have also created more contemporary dishes that use the meat in combination with other traditional indigenous ingredients, like this Bison Pot Roast with Hominy.
Bison can be substituted for beef in most recipes. However, it is much leaner than beef so it cooks faster and, lacking the higher fat content, will dry out more quickly. Bison steaks should be cooked to a doneness that is no more than medium and benefit from a little extra fat, such as compound butter, in the pan. Roasts that are cooked to an internal temperature no higher than 160, for medium, will retain more of their flavor and tenderness. The same rule of thumb applies to bison burgers.
Eaters who prefer their meat to be more thoroughly cooked would do best to use cuts that favor moist heat. Bison chuck or round can be braised in stews or chili that will tenderize well-done meat. Bone-in cuts such as short ribs will also stand up to low and slow cooking that tenderizes meat that is cooked through.
Another way to ensure juicy, tender results is to cook with ground bison where you can add additional fat and flavorings to round out the flavor and add some moisture to the meat. Meatloaf, shepherd’s pie or tacos would all put bison to good use with juicy results.
Bison is high in protein, B complex vitamins, selenium, niacin and zinc. According to USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS), 100 grams of raw bison contains 109 calories and 1.8 grams fat. The same amount of raw beef contains 291 calories and 24 grams of fat.