AMERICA'S bison population, nearly hunted to extinction in the early 1880s, is now approaching 100,000, giving new life to an old business. Ranchers see a rebirth in the consumption of buffalo meat and the trade in buffalo hides, robes, skulls, and other by-products of the animal once called the ``lord of the plains.''
Health-conscious consumers, turning away from traditional red meats, are trying buffalo meat and liking it, industry officials say.
``A lot of people think that the meat might have a gamey taste, might be tough. They're afraid to try it, just like anybody would be afraid to try rattlesnake or frogs' legs,'' says Kim Dowling, spokeswoman for the National Buffalo Association in Fort Pierre, S.D. ``It's delicious. It's tender and juicy if it's cooked properly.''
The federal government doesn't list the bison as an endangered species, allowing private producers - situated mainly in the Midwest - to raise buffalo herds and slaughter them.
Ms. Dowling estimates there are 90,000 or 95,000 bison in private and public herds in North America, a far cry from the approximately 550 left in the United States in 1900. About 75 million once roamed the land.
Buffalo meat is lower in cholesterol and fat and higher in protein than beef, says Dowling, who worked on the recently released Buffalo Producer's Guide to Management and Marketing.
Mike Fogel, who owns Money Creek Buffalo Ranch of Houston, Minn., says he butchered 165 bison in two years to fill orders from a single California Safeway store.
``We have our own jerky and summer sausage and brauts and Polish and hot dogs and smoked buffalo tongue.... We sell all parts of the buffalo.''
A new movie, ``Dances With Wolves,'' starring Kevin Costner, includes ``some incredible shots of the buffalo,'' Mr. Fogel says. The movie ``will probably increase the awareness of buffalo and increase the demand for buffalo.''
``There are restaurants all over the US that deal in and serve buffalo on their menus,'' says Laurie Dineen, executive director of the American Bison Association.
A New York City restaurant, ``An American Place,'' serves buffalo on its fall and winter menus, says general manager Kevin Dwyer. Customer reaction has been ``very positive,'' he says.
Dominik Luond, who runs Country Pride Meats in Ipswich, S.D., says buffalo meat is most popular in the Midwest, but is spreading to East Coast and West Coast markets ``more and more.''
Restaurants could charge $25 to $50 for an eight- or 10-ounce buffalo tenderloin dinner, Mr. Luond says. Ms. Dineen says supermarkets might charge $15 a pound or more for buffalo T-bone steaks.
A short supply of buffalo meat is largely responsible for its higher price, Dineen says. Some 125,000 cattle are slaughtered each day in the US, compared to 10,000 bison in an entire year, but Dineen says the number is growing.
Unpredictable supplies are hindering renewed growth of hide and robe trade, says Duane Lammer, whose 777 Ranch in Hermosa, S.D., has 1,000 adult bison. ``I've had people call up that want a semi-load of buffalo hides. It's really difficult to come up with the 700 or so hides you would need quickly,'' he says.
Skulls are the best-selling buffalo by-product at Lietzau Taxidermy in Cosmos, Minn. The skulls can cost ``all the way from $50 up to $300, $400 and probably even more for a real select skull,'' says Chuck Lietzau.
Pete Sotherland of Hot Springs, S.D., produces custom-made buffalo coats patterned after US Cavalry coats from the 1800s. Full-length models cost $2,000, but wearers won't freeze, he says. ``I've taken a nap in a snow bank at 10 below zero quite comfortably.''
Biologist Gary Merrill studies 100 bison on the 8,600-acre Konza Prairie in the Kansas Flint Hills south of Manhattan, Kan.
``Some people have difficulty with the fact that the bison is being raised as livestock,'' he says. ``But almost certainly there wouldn't be 70,000 bison around today [in private herds] if there were not people doing this in commercial operations.''