The American bison is native to North America. Most call them “Buffalo,” though technically, bison is more proper to separate them from Water Buffalo found mainly in Asia.
The bison is the largest land mammal in North America following the period after the Ice Age. Hunting the buffalo was not regulated in the 19th century. As a result, their population fell to an estimated 1,500. Regulations now abound, especially in national and state parks. Records show the last bison east of the Mississippi River were killed in southwest Wisconsin in 1832.
Back in the day, hunting for bison was well known. Hunters did seek their meat and hides, but they also sought to protect their livestock.
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has said this:
“The restoration of bison from near extinction is one of this century's most dramatic conservation stories. A combination of ranching, habitat destruction and market hunting quickly reduced the bison population from 60-70 million in the late 1700s to only 800 by 1890. This destruction took less than 100 years. The last two bison east of the Mississippi River were shot in Wisconsin in 1832. Fortunately, during the time wild bison herds were being destroyed, a number of people were developing small captive herds.”
Of particular interest, a white female bison calf was born on the farm of Dave, Valerie, and Corey Heider near Janesville, Wisconsin, on August 20, 1994. Many Native Americans from multiple quarters learned of this birth and considered her very important to their religious beliefs. They considered her a sacred symbol. The calf was named “Miracle.” She died in 2004.
As Wisconsin farmers moved away from dairy and cash crop farming, some decided to raise, breed, and sell bison. A small but growing number of farmers are now raising buffalo, primarily as a source of meat. Some Wisconsin farmers have even invested in processing plants. That said, most bison farmers have relatively small herds in the 20s-40s. Most are raised in southern and western Wisconsin.
The Wisconsin Bison Producers Association (WBPA) has said about 7,000 bison were raised in the state in 2017. Another source estimated 500,00 were in the US nationwide in 2016, while the WBPA estimated 375,000 in 2017. Their population is no doubt growing, said to be about 200,000 in 1998.
Al Weyker of the Lakeview Buffalo in Belgium, Wisconsin, said in 2017, “Today, Wisconsin is about the 10th-largest bison-producing state, with over 100 farms and ranches raising this magnificent animal.”
Most, if not all, bison are only partly domesticated. A bison can stand up to 6 feet tall, weigh up to 2,000 lbs., and at full speed charge at 35-40 mph. They are agile. One expert has said, “they can turn on a dime.” In that regard, raising them can be a handful! One must be careful working with bison, as they can have a mean streak.
Greg Kummrow of Battle Creek Beef & Bison in Summit, Wisconsin, has commented, “They are still wild animals. You always respect them. You always keep an eye open.”
On the other hand, they like to graze and want to be left alone. Many farmers allow their bison free to graze.
They can endure all manner of weather, including Wisconsin’s winters.
Bison meat is said to be low in fat, especially when compared to beef, and a good source of protein.
The meat is said to be sweet. It is being served in restaurants around the state. Other uses include wool, hides, bones, and horns, which are transformed into hats, gloves, wallets, coats, cups, decorations, and smoked dog bones.
The objective is to slaughter bison humanely, partly because that is humane but also because anxiety and stress can disturb the taste of their meat. They are often rested for as long as 30 days before slaughter when they go to a processing plant.
I marvel at how many more bison I see as I continue to roam around the state. These are at the Irvine Zoo in Chippewa Falls:
Entirely by accident, I bumped into these guys grazing south of Osseo near Hwy 53 in Trempealeau.
On the way back to Eau Claire from Coon Valley, I spotted this sizable group - herd - of buffalo outside grazing. Unfortunately, I did not note where I was at the time.
Out on another drive, this time in Barron County, I came across these buffalo grazing near 14 1/2 St. near the city of Barron. I turned to the north on 17th Ave and immediately saw the farmhouse. It is the home of “Snow Bound Bison.” They breed bison and sell their meat.
While driving around Barron County on a different mission, I saw these bison grazing in a very large field.
I turned the corner onto 17th Ave. and found the farmhouse, “Snow Bound Bison.” This farm breeds bison and sells their meat. The Minnesota Bison Association published an article in 2017 describing how the Workman family got into this business. They transitioned their farm from dairy to bison.