Bison is the largest land mammal and once ranged from the eastern seaboard to Oregon and California; from Great Slave Lake in northern Alberta to northern Mexico. Although no one will ever know exactly how many bison once inhabited North America, estimates range from twenty-five to seventy million. William Hornaday, a naturalist who spent considerable time in the West, both before and during the most severe years of the slaughter, comments on the seemingly infinite bison population and the impossibility of estimating their quantity: It would have been as easy to count or to estimate the number of leaves in a forest as to calculate the number of buffaloes living at any given time during the history of the species previous to 1870 (quoted in Rifkin, 74).
Bison have a rich history, intertwined with North Americas native tribes, in fact the Bison was the historical supermarket providing a wealth of different raw materials above and beyond the meat. A typical bison bull in good condition would have weighed more than 2,000 pounds and provide about 800 pounds of useable meat. Cows weighed from 700 to 1,200 pounds, and provided an average of 400 pounds of meat. Horns were fashioned into spoons or scoops. The extra thick hide on the top of the head became a bowl. The heart was used as a sack to carry dried meat. The furry hide was tanned and used by the tribe as the walls of their tepees. Later, these hides became a thriving trade item for them. Even the stomach could be used as a cooking vessel. The stomach would be filled with water, meat, herbs and wild onions. Then hot rocks were placed into the mixture to bring it to a boil. A little later, the tribe had stew
Until the introduction of the repeating rifles in the late 1860s, the use of the bow and arrow was the preferred weapon for communal hunts. If hunts were organized so that each man hunted for his own family, his kills could be identified by the markings on his arrows. Selected hunters were assigned the task of hunting for the poor or those families that did not have an active hunter.
Following successful hunts there were days of feasting and hard work. The usual butchering process involved men placing the bison on its belly and removing the hide in two sections, divided along the backbone. Then, the meat had to be cut into long thin sheets and dried in the sun. The dried meat was light, portable, and well preserved.
For most of their history, bison were killed by the tribes for their needs. But as trade with Europeans became more important, they began killing bison and took only their hides and tongues to exchange for trade goods. By the 1840s, the number of hides prepared for trade was far greater than those used by the Indians themselves. In the 1870s, more buffalo were killed than in any other decade in history. The three years of 1872, ’73, and ’74 were the worst. According to one buffalo hunter, who based his calculations on first-hand accounts and shipping records, 4.5 million buffalo were slaughtered in that three year period alone (Mayer, 87).
By 1890 Bison numbers had collapsed to just under 1000 animals and extinction seemed imminent. In 1905 the American Bison Society was formed to ensure the species’ survival. By that point, the Bronx Zoo and Yellowstone National Park had also established bison preserves, and in 1908, the US federal government created the National Bison Range in Montana. Although Bison numbers shrank to a perilously small figure at the end of the 19th century due to overhunting, private and public conservation efforts gradually nudged their population upward , with the greatest increase occurring in the last 40 years.
Today more than 95 percent of bison are privately owned. In the 1970s, ranchers started buying bison to build up a niche meat market. From a financial standpoint, investing in bison is a thrifty move for ranchers since the grass grazers don’t require costly feed and their meat is low in fat and cholesterol. According to the USDA, the bison market has gradually expanded in the United States, from less than 18,000 commercial bison slaughtered for sale in 2000 to around 50,000 in 2007. Thanks to the growing demand, there are around 500,000 commercial bison living in the North America.