Foods Indigenous to the Western Hemisphere

American Bison

Bison bison

By Jeremy Trombley

The American Bison is currently seeing a resurgence in its population after nearly becoming extinct in the early days of America's westward expansion. After declining sharply from an estimated population of 60 million to around 300 individuals, the population has re-grown over the twentieth century to an estimated 200,000 head. Their range once spanned all across North America from the rocky mountains in the west to the appalachians in the east and from Texas into the northern reaches of Canada. Now the entire population is confined largely to wildlife refuges and a growing number of bison farms which supply bison meat to American and Canadian consumers.

History of the Bison

Prior to the arrival of Europeans, Bison played a central role in many Native American tribes. Not only did they provide an essential source of food and material for the people, but they were also a powerful religious figure and central to the life styles and world views of the plains peoples. However, after Europeans arrived the bison (and the Native American populations as well) were pushed onto smaller and smaller parcels of land to make way for growing populations and agriculture. By the turn of the twentieth century the population had dwindled due to a combination of over-hunting (by both whites and Native Americans), disease (as a result of the concentration of the population on a relatively small range), and ecological changes (such as the introduction of cattle, and larger human populations). The docile nature of the bison almost became its downfall, as sport hunting parties including the infamous “buffalo trains” decimated the population.

However, in the 1870s, the effects of these practices were becoming apparent and legislation came up in several territories and eventually in the Federal congress that limited the hunting of bison, particularly females. This legislation was hotly debated, because many (most notably General Philip Sheridan) saw the decimation of the bison as a way to force the submission of Native Americans. Most of these laws were not passed, including the Federal bill which was put to rest through a presidential pocket veto on the part of President Grant. Those that were passed were rarely enforced, and by 1913 wild bison had disappeared from the American West.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, intensive efforts on the part of both naturalists and sportsmen began the process of reestablishing the American Bison in North America. The few remaining bison in Yellowstone were augmented with the addition of animals from domestic herds, and a program was initiated to protect the herd from hunting and from the harsh winter. In 1905 the American Bison Society (ABS) was formed, with Theodore Roosevelt serving as honorary president. They worked to encourage the Federal government to form additional herds and to create large bison reserves across the plains region. Furthermore, several Native American tribes worked to restore the herds on their own lands, culminating in the formation of the Inter-Tribal Bison Cooperative (ITBC) which assisted bison restoration projects in 13 states. As a result of these efforts, the American Bison has regenerated its population to a healthy level, and are no longer in danger of extinction.


Bison are an excellent food source; their meat is low in fat and high in protein. They are far more efficient grazers than cattle – consuming far less grass and water than ordinary cows – and providing far more meat per head than cattle. They shed most of their fur in the summer, so hunting for hide (historically the most valuable product) has always been a seasonal activity. Recently, the market for bison meat has increased as a result of its perceived nutritional value. This meat is largely supplied by bison ranches which maintain herds of between 100 and 250 head. They have many advantages when compared to ordinary cattle (as mentioned above), but they also have many disadvantages. They require a larger up-front investment than cows and are not subject to the generous subsidies that cattle farms enjoy. They are also not well suited to the large scale confined feed operations in which cattle are currently raised, so they must be raised on large ranches – a technique which is unable to supply the large quantities of inexpensive meat that American consumers desire. As a result bison meat has typically been relegated to health and natural food stores.


National Bison Association

Buffalo Field Campaign

Barksdale, J. Allen. “American Bison.” The Cambridge World History of Food. Ed. Kenneth F. Kiple & Kriemhild Coneè Ornelas. Cambridge University Press, 2000. 427-430.