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BISON GLUT TEACHES SOME LESSONS

Jay Nixon

Not too many years ago, the American Bison, or Buffalo if you prefer, was on the verge of extinction. Years of hunting, fencing of range and encroaching civilization had all but wiped out this bovine species that, at one time, roamed the ranges of the American west in the millions.

In fact, the only remaining Bison were found in small government reserves, on the ranches of collectors of Americana, and in zoos. Now, all that has changed. There are more than 250,000 Bison now residing in all 50 United States and Canada, and over-supply has become a problem in Bison as a commercial venture.

The successful restoration of this species should, but won't, teach a lesson to the United States Department of the Interior about how to save the growing number of endangered species that it is adding to its list on an annual basis.

Through the Endangered Species Act, the Interior Department has adopted stringent regulations limiting commercial enterprises that might come in contact with any of these designated endangered animals and plants, and in so doing has placed itself in an adversarial position with land owners and industries that utilize land on which the endangered might find a habitat.

Instead of trying to work with land owners, agriculturists, and land utilizing industries, the department has attempted to take over the land, public and private, and to preserve habitat through threats, arrests, prosecutions and, what many have termed Gestapo tactics, allowed by their interpretation of the Endangered Species Act.

In so doing only three species of all the designated plants and animals have been rejuvenated to a point where they could be removed from the endangered list. The Bison and the Alligator are two of these, and the reason for their success in that they have been adopted by private enterprise because of their commercial value.

On the other hand, others, such as the Whooping Crane have struggled along, protected by government mandate. In the 1950's the Whooping Crane had all but died out, and went under government protection. Forty years later, there are still only about 400 Whoopers in existence.

David Langford, a good friend of mine and CEO of the Texas Wildlife Association, cited them as an example of bureaucratic bumbling. He said, “Had there been commercial incentives to save the Whooping Crane, there would now be so many of them they'd be in the counter with the Butterballs.”

But it is against the policies of the U.S. Department of the Interior to work with private enterprise and to offer incentives for ranchers and other land owners to work with them on saving these species. They prefer threats and legal action.

The comeback success of the American Bison demonstrates vividly how wrong-headed their policies are.

This isn't to say that all the 2,300 members of the National Bison Association are driven by the profit motive. There are those who are pure nature lovers and were determined to keep the Buffalo alive in order to preserve the species, just as early-on there were traditionalists who were hell-bent on preserving the Texas Longhorn. But the major success of the efforts of these purists didn't really occur until there became a good sound commercial reason to produce them.

And now, the Bison breeders are working to enhance the commercial value of their animals. I was recently at a cattle sales event in Reno, a dual deal. There were two big sales, one of Beefmasters and the other of Romagnolas. And who should be on hand? Why, representatives of the National Bison Association, who were studying how to hold a sale. And would you believe, they even have Bison shows.

They were nice folks, full of questions and taking copious notes. And they fully intend to begin holding Bison production and consignment sales in the near future.

One of the big boosts to Bison popularity came when media-magnate, Ted Turner bought a large Montana ranch and committed the entire operation to Bison. Having the owner of CNN and TNT and TBS as an advocate doesn't do any species any harm. He has touted the superiority of Bison meat and the economic advantages of raising Bison and the romance of same to good effect across the land.

Now, there are processing plants devoted to killing Bison, and many small and medium-size packers are including Bison in their kill orders. Some restaurants are selling Bison steaks at healthy prices, and just this year, USDA has agreed to buy $6 million worth of ground Bison for school lunch programs to hold down the over-supply.

So, the popularity of Bison meat is growing spurred on by claims that it is higher in protein, lower in fat, and doesn't have to be grain fed to be good. That message appeals to a lot of people.

Right now, the Bison isn't much of a competitor to beef. There just aren't that many of them. It's still an oddity, sort of like the Ostrich and Emu, but it is growing and its people are aggressive and market minded. They won't be sitting on their hands hoping for someone to come along and buy their product.

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