The Ultimate American Meat’s Big Comeback

Demand for bison burgers and steaks is fueling the regrowth of the West’s great herds.

If America’s bison producers had the same capacity as the domestic beef industry, which processes 120,000 head of cattle daily, ranchers would have an extremely long summer vacation. “We would work until about noon on January 2nd,” says Dave Carter, Executive Director of the National Bison Association, “and that’s assuming we took the first off.” But 60,000 animals a year is nothing to dismiss. In 1889, there were just over a thousand bison on Earth. The demand for the animals’ meat, fur, and grazing land had obliterated the massive herds that once roamed the prairies. Today, populations are growing along with demand for bison meat, which industry experts say is higher than ever. America’s original protein is popping up everywhere and all bison ranchers can do is try to keep pace with the chefs grinding their animals into gourmet burgers and slicing them into rib-eyes.

“I spend most of my time convincing people to ranch bison or grow their herds just to keep up,” says Carter, who keeps a small herd in Eastern Colorado. “We are seeing the strongest market we’ve ever experienced.”

When Carter got into the bison business in 2000 these were not the sorts of problems he was facing. There were meat lockers in Colorado, Montana, and Wyoming full of carcasses that no one particularly wanted. The problem was that bison meat felt like a novelty, something you ordered so that you could say you ordered it – not unlike crocodile or emu. Ranchers tried to sell the public on their product by pointing out that it was healthy (lots of B6, very little saturated fat) and sustainable (native animals, no growth hormones), but that wasn’t enough. City slickers didn’t know what it tasted like and didn’t want to risk ruining their steakhouse dinners.

Then something happened. That something consisted of at least two separate somethings, one of which was Ted Turner and another of which was probably just inevitable. Turner, who purchased his first bison in 1976, started stocking his two-million-acre backyard with the 3,500-pound beasts and selling 11 oz. rib eyes at Ted’s Montana Grill in Midtown Manhattan. After that, chefs began using the meat in appetizers and specials, and people tried it. The next bit should have surprised no one: Diners liked it. They kept ordering it.

In 2004, the carcass price of a bison was $1.40 a pound. Today, the price hovers around $4.

But what does it taste like? It tastes like that spark of flavor you find in the red part of a rare beef filet. Carter likes it with a bit of salt. Chef Karl Marsh, who is heading up Omaha Steaks new Bison program, likes it on a bun.

“The flavor of bison has changed over the last few decades because ranchers are raising the animals differently,” he says. “That means that the taste is similar to beef despite the meat being a lot leaner.”

Marsh has been charged with providing recipes for Omaha’s bison buyers. He’s experimented with everything from topping steaks with salsa to making bison meatloaf, and concluded that the meat is immensely versatile. He says his goal now is to create recipes that showcase the protein’s natural flavor rather than covering it up with spices. That said, he has also found that cooking bison requires a bit of extra care: It dries out faster than beef and, if you order it well-done you’re going to get something tough on the teeth. His hope is that chefs in the coastal cities will take the time to learn how to make it – as they did with southern staples like grits and catfish.

“We saw southern food become a big thing, maybe it’s time for people to think about food from the plains,” he says.

John Flocchini, whose family has been ranching bison on Wyoming’s Durham Ranch since the sixties, has a slightly more grounded perspective on the growth of his industry. He’s quick to point out that 2014 has been a great year for grasses on the plains – so much so that there is enough coverage to keep the animals fed for a year if everything stopped growing (an event that would represent the end of the world as well as his 90-square-mile ranch). 

“We’re actually looking to expand our land,” says Flocchini. “In the meantime, we’ll increase the size of the herd internally by holding onto more of our females.”

As for the work of calving, he says all he has to do is let nature take its course. “Things get a bit crazy during mating season,” he adds. “But these animals know what they’re doing.” And that’s perhaps the most fascinating thing about the demand for bison meat. The bison will handle the supply. We just need to give them back some of their land and get the hell out of their way.