When President Obama named the American bison, also known as the buffalo, as America's first national mammal in 2016, he recognized the ecological, cultural, historical, and economic contributions of North America’s largest mammal. Estimates indicate that in the 15th century, as many as 30-60 million bison ranged across much of the United States, Canada, Alaska and northern Mexico. Bison were a significant spiritual symbol and source of food, clothing, and shelter for American Indians, but the ravages of westward expansion depleted the bison population, and by 1885 an estimated 750 animals remained. Thanks to combined conservation efforts among public organizations, American Indian communities, non-profit organizations, and private citizens, the U.S. bison population has climbed back to more than 380,000 on farms and ranches, Tribal lands, and federal and state lands (National Bison Association, 2017).
Jim Matheson encountered his first bison as a student at Montana State University in the late 1990s, where he learned more about what he calls the "keystone species of the great plains ecosystem." Today, Matheson is the Assistant Director of the National Bison Association (NBA), a non-profit whose mission is to bring together stakeholders to celebrate the heritage of American bison, to educate, and to create a sustainable future for the bison industry. Consumers appreciate that bison is a leaner meat-100 grams of raw bison (separable lean only) contains 109 calories and 1.8 grams fat (USDA, 2013). As for producers, Matheson says bison can offer a natural, sustainable ranching model.
"Bison restore the landscape they're being raised on when managed properly, which is the definition of regenerative and sustainable agriculture," explained Matheson. "Once you bring bison back to the prairie, other native species, from birds to plants and flowers, follow suit. Further, the species is not domesticated, so producers utilize their still-intact instincts to their advantage, such as their metabolism slowing in the winter so they eat less. They require no shelter, survive and thrive in extreme weather, we don’t artificially inseminate, so they breed naturally and without human intervention, and predation is not an issue as they take care of themselves. Match that with the strong and stable prices producers receive for their meat, and it's a great, profitable model of agriculture in today's gloomy market."
In 2014, Matheson and the NBA received a $103,675 NCR-SARE Research and Education grant to conduct a program called The Bison Advantage Outreach and Education Program. With their project funds, they created a "Bison Advantage" curriculum, supported bison- specific research on pasture management protocols, and developed the second edition of The Bison Producer’s Handbook, which features the grazing protocols developed through the project. Matheson says The Bison Producer’s Handbook is a go-to resource for both beginning and existing bison producers in educating themselves.
"The great opportunity we saw in this project was the ability to develop a handbook for our industry that very much focuses on a sustainable and holistic approach to bison production," said Matheson.
Matheson’s team facilitated six Bison Advantage workshops, five of which took place on working bison operations, and one at the National Buffalo Museum, which is home to a small herd of bison. In addition to these workshops, they presented at six NBA conferences, resulting in a total of 12 workshops/presentations. Attendees included extension agents, Tribal members, agricultural educators, experienced producers, and new/prospective bison producers with little background in bison. Matheson says they reached more than 500 producers directly through their workshops, and more than 1,000 when counting the NBA members who also benefited from the project deliverables.
"The resources and learning tools developed through this grant will allow us to continue to educate and encourage bison farmers and ranchers to raise their animals in a holistic manner, as we preach in our learning toolkit," said Matheson. "The NBA has also been approached by multiple extension agents, and Tribal organizations to facilitate similar workshops for their clientele as the word spread about our workshop series through the bison community."
Watch a video of NBA Executive Director, Dave Carter, sharing information about the NBA's SARE project, filmed during one of the Bison Advantage Workshops at Snake River Farm in Becker, Minnesota.
Want more information? See the related SARE grant: