an American buffalo, bison, grazingA controversial agreement between the state of Montana and Ted Turner, involving the transfer of nearly 100 buffalo from Yellowstone National Park to the media mogul's Montana ranch for an experimental breeding program, was a featured story in the New York Times recently. Turner, the founder of CNN, also has a national chain of restaurants that serve buffalo.

His plan has brought attention to the future of bison, a still-threatened symbol of the American West, and hopes for returning large numbers of the animals to the wild. But it also highlights rising consumer demand for what many Americans once considered an exotic meat.

Now a Protected Species

After being hunted almost to extinction, buffalo became a protected species in the 1890s. There are now about a half-million bison in North America today -- with nearly all of them on private ranches.

Bison make up only a fraction of America's red meat industry, but buffalo meat has more protein and less fat than beef, and is typically raised on grass from start to finish, avoiding time in crowded feedlots -- an attraction for health- and eco-conscious consumers. In the 1990s, bison began appearing in many American supermarkets, usually as a specialty item. Like the cattle industry, the recent economic downturn affected bison prices and reduced the size of commercial buffalo herds. But as with beef, consumer demand has rebounded.

According to the National Bison Association, "bison demand has consistently grown in double digits for the past five years." The Association says 70,000 buffalo were slaughtered in the U.S. last year under federal and state inspection -- more than double the processing figures for 2002.

The Denver Post reports that the average retail price of ground bison has gone from about $5.30 a pound in 2006 to $6.20 today -- with buffalo steaks selling for $15 to $20. And the USDA estimates that American consumers eat 1 million pounds of bison each month.

The Year of the Buffalo

For its part, the National Bison Association has proclaimed 2010 to be the Year of the Buffalo: "American consumers are playing a key role in restoring the buffalo herds that once roamed across North America, because their strong demand for delicious, healthy bison meat is encouraging ranchers to increase their herds," according to a recent Association press release.

But some are worried that a growing taste for buffalo may lead to questionable breeding practices -- over-emphasizing size and rapid growth -- that could compromise both the animals and their meat.

The Great Plains Buffalo Association, which promotes grass-fed and naturally raised buffalo, says many producers are concerned "that there has developed a shift in the approach to raising and feeding buffalo, which is following many of the mistakes of the cattle industry." It warns against intensive breeding manipulation and the use of hormonal additives with bison.

The advantages of traditionally raised buffalo, like grass-finished cattle, include a better balance of essential fatty acids, no hormone or antibiotic residues in the meat, a better ecological footprint and a link to America's frontier history.

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