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American Plains Bison

Bison priscus latifrons, Bison latifrons, or Bos bison bison

Photo: National Bison AssociationThe North American Plains Bison, which reaches approximately two thousand pounds at maturity, is a dark brown, bearded herbivore with a prominent hump on its upper back. Both the male and female bison have horns. Bison are adaptable, hardy, disease-resistant, intelligent, and majestic. Raw grass-fed bison meat is a deep purplish-red color. When cooked it yields a marvelously tender, slightly sweet flavor with subtle reminders of the pasture in which the animal was raised.

The Plains Bison, which at their zenith numbered between 30 and 70 million animals, once ranged from Alaska to the northern tier of Mexican states, and from the East Coast to the West Coast of North America. The bison was a vital and dominant part of the landscape and of many Native American nations on and beyond the Great Plains region. These animals provided an unending supply of food and raw material for tools, clothing, shelter, and other products. Various Native American nations had (and continue to have) a central place for bison in their spiritual and cultural lives.

Although the European introduction of the horse and gun changed Native peoples' hunting methods, bison populations remained balanced for several centuries. The demise of the herd did not come until the Euro-American expansion westward in the late 19th century. By 1890 the Euro-Americans had hunted the bison nearly to extinction. About one thousand bison survived the 19th century to form the core population from which all current herds trace their ancestry.

Thanks to the cross-cultural efforts of ranchers, public-lands managers, and tribal nations, the Plains Bison has made a welcome comeback during the 20th century. In 2004 the United States Department of Agriculture confirmed that more than 232,000 bison exist in private herds around the United States. The National Bison Association estimates that another 20,000 bison are in public herds, with another 150,000 bison in Canadian herds, both public and private. Bison meat has slowly but surely become a staple on restaurant menus around the U.S. and is being sourced by mainstream retailer grocers.

Photo credit: National Bison Association

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