EAGLE BUTTE, S.D. — In the dimming twilight of the 19th century, American Indian tribes on the Great Plains could feel their traditional way of life slipping away.
Relegated to reservations and confronting the near extinction of their main food source, the buffalo, native shamans and their followers engaged in a desperate ritual known as the Ghost Dance.
In the visions derived from this transcendental ceremony, spiritual elders such as Black Elk of the Lakota Sioux prophesied that the American buffalo (whose correct scientific name is bison) would one day return and carry with them the dreams of his people.
A century later, Black Elk's prediction is being borne out with tens of thousands of bison again peppering the plains. The proliferation of indigenous bovines has sparked not only a cultural renaissance for native Americans but it is producing an increasingly popular alternative to beef for consumers.
"The symbolism of what's taking place is significant beyond words," says Mark Heckert, executive director of the Intertribal Bison Cooperative headquartered in Rapid City, S.D. "Restoring the everyday contact between Indian people and the buffalo has reinvigorated a synergy that existed for thousands of years but sadly has been absent for the last 100."
Mr. Heckert, a biologist, has brought together 40 tribes in 17 states, all of them committed to establishing resident bison populations on reservations. Nationwide, Indian-owned herds now hold 9,000 animals and the figure is expected to double in the next four years.
"I believe that the bison phenomenon would be occurring with the tribes whether it was economically viable or not. It was an inevitability because bison are at the center of their culture," Heckert says. "The fact that it is so lucrative is also turning heads in the heart of cattle country, too."
Paul Jonjak, a bison rancher in Lyons, Colo., and president of the 2,300-member National Bison Association, says the bottom line speaks for itself.
"Just about anybody I've talked with who has converted their operation from cattle to bison is thrilled," Mr. Jonjak says.
"Bison do a good job of taking care of themselves. Cattle need help giving birth to their calves, which translates into extra manpower and thus, cost. Overall, operating costs tend to be about the same between bison and cattle but gross income with bison is double."
Turner bullish on bison
One investor bullish on bison is media mogul Ted Turner, who now reigns as the largest buffalo baron in the world.
Over the last six years, the billionaire founder of CNN has purchased more than 1.2 million acres of private land in the West and quietly converted five historic cattle ranches to bison in Montana, Nebraska, and New Mexico.
Mr. Turner alone owns more than 12,000 bison. While he enjoys the behemoths because they are aesthetically pleasing to observe, it's the economics that has left a smile on his face.
"Cattle are unprofitable because it's so easy to oversupply the market," Turner explains one morning from his 107,000-acre Flying D bison ranch in southwest Montana. "People haven't been eating that much beef because it's fattier and consumers are more health-conscious." Bison meat is appealing, says Turner, because it's healthier.
Also raised free of growth hormones and generally more flavorful, the animals require less maintenance and costly supplemental feeding during the cold winter months, he adds.
"Bison are not going to replace cattle everywhere, but in time they are going to be prolific, barring some cataclysm of humanity that shakes things up. They simply make more sense," Turner says.
"The farther north you go in North America the more advantages that bison hold for agriculture," agrees Dennis Sexhus, chief operating officer of North American Bison Cooperative, a rancher-owned slaughtering and processing facility in New Rockford, N.D.
"This is where they evolved, " says Mr. Sexhus. "I've always said that had the settlers known how to manage and appreciate bison they probably wouldn't have brought cattle to this country."
Industry officials admit that the number of bison produced on the open range is tiny compared with the number of cattle. For now, talk of parity is out of the question.
Currently in the US there are more than 100 million beef and dairy cows compared with about 200,000 bison on private ranches, in wildlife refuges, and national parks.
Still, supply has been unable to keep pace with demand. And many in the livestock community perceive the emergence of bison as a threat to the vaunted cowboy legacy of the West.
Ironically, it was partially at the behest of cattlemen in the late 1800s that bison were nearly annihilated on the plains to make room for beef cows.
In less than 30 years, tens of millions of bison were reduced to just a couple of hundred by hunters who slaughtered them for their tongues, furry capes, and bones which were sold for pennies on the dollar as fertilizer.
Buffalo benefits hyped
Jim Peterson, spokesman for the Montana Stockgrowers' Association, says that bison are unruly beasts whose wild nature makes them more problematic than they are worth. They need special fences to contain them and they can be difficult to round up. "I don't think it makes economic sense that bison replace cattle," Mr. Peterson says. "If that were the case, it would have been done by all of us a long time ago."
But bison advocates say that Peterson is just being stubborn. There is compelling financial evidence, they claim, that shows raising bison could be a viable alternative for ranchers struggling through tough economic times.
Within the US, the Denver metropolitan area has emerged as a model of what bison producers are hoping to replicate in other cities.
The Mile High City has half-a-dozen restaurants specializing in bison steaks and hamburgers, major grocery-store chains featuring bison on their shelves regularly, and wholesalers, like the Denver Buffalo Company with a 1-800 BUY BUFF telephone number, developing a worldwide clientele.
"Today, bison represents an exciting small-niche industry, but I believe that in 30 to 40 years there will be as much bison marketed to consumers as there is beef. The palate of Americans is easily adaptable given the health considerations," says Rusty Seedig, a vice president at the Denver Buffalo Company, which also runs a popular restaurant. "The people who get a taste of bison seldom go back to beef," says Mr. Seedig.
The most profound impact of bison, however, continues to be felt on Indian reservations. Arvol Looking Horse, a Lakota Sioux spiritual leader in Eagle Butte, S.D., is the keeper of the sacred buffalo pipe that legend suggests goes back thousands of years to the time when the white buffalo woman gave bison to the Plains people.
Looking Horse says the emergence of bison is calling Indians back to their traditional roots. Young people are relearning their ancient language and practicing the customs of their ancestors, which revolved around the role of bison in their society.
"We look to the buffalo for spiritual guidance," Looking Horse says. "Like Black Elk told us a long time ago, having these animals back with us means that the well-being of our nation will once again be healthy. I have seen the changes in my own people. It is like a new era has arrived."