The day the bison herd swam across the river says it all.
About 80 of the legendary mammals, known for hardiness and stubbornness, decided to cross the half-mile wide Pend Oreille River in 1994—bulls, cows, and even calves—and all survived the crossing, recalls Ray Entz, natural resources director of the Kalispel Tribe of Indians in northeast Washington.
That same rugged strength of the wooly North American bovines—whether you call them bison or buffalo—helped the entire resilient species survive. Although bison are now the national mammal of the United States, they once balanced on the cliff of extinction with fewer than 300 wild animals in the late nineteenth century.
Critical to Plains, Rocky Mountain, and Plateau Native American tribes, bison have powerful spiritual as well as practical purpose. Bison herds continue to grow thanks to the Intertribal Bison Cooperative and others, and remain a valuable food source and a cultural touchpoint for many tribes such as the Kalispel. The Blackfeet even have a specific word for bison meat: natapi waksin, meaning “real food.”
The animals themselves strike an impressive profile. The immense bulls can weigh a ton or more and stand five to six feet high. The cows are not as massive but still imposing. They’re quite agile, with sprint speeds of up to 30 miles per hour.
The two species are the smaller plains bison and the larger wood bison, with a taller, square hump. The wood bison is one of the largest wild bovines in the world and the largest extant land animal in the Americas.
Of course, the question about the name inevitably arises: Is it bison or buffalo?
The answer’s a little surprising: the European name “buffalo” precedes “bison.” French fur trappers and some explorers referred to the animals as bœufs, which became buffalo in English, around the early 1600s. The name “bison,” meaning ox-like animal in Greek, was first applied in 1774.
Whatever you call them, they’re certainly one of the most important North American animals. Bison originally spread as far south as Mexico and east to the Atlantic, and were seen in North Carolina as late as 1750.
We might not know just how many buffalo once roamed North America, but estimates range from 30 to 75 million. “The moving multitude…darkened the whole plains,” wrote Lewis and Clark, who encountered a plains herd in 1806.
Overhunting and construction of the railroads across the plains decimated the buffalo populations by the 1880s. Train passengers would shoot the buffalo by the thousands as they ran beside the rails.
The bison were rescued thanks to the tireless efforts of mainly five groups, according to Ken Zontek, an environmental historian teaching at WSU Tri-Cities and Yakima Valley Community College. Zontek is the author of the 2007 book Buffalo Nation: American Indian Efforts to Restore Bison, which tells the stories of the frontline environmentalists who rescued bison. President Theodore Roosevelt and others later helped by establishing the National Bison Range and mandating protections, but it was really the efforts of both Native Americans like Sabine Walking Coyote, who physically captured and bred bison, and other westerners who ensured survival.
RAISING BISON CERTAINLY STILL TAKES SOME MOXIE.
“There’s never any end to the fun with managing a bunch of wild beasts,” says Entz. “We’ve only really ever had one incident in the 25 years I’ve been here. Nobody’s ever been trampled. I’ve been missed a few times really closely.”
Standard fences don’t do much to contain the animals, either. “They treat it like a piece of really light fishing line,” laughs Entz.
Entz has worked for the Kalispel Tribe since the early 1990s, but he hadn’t seen anything like that day in 1994 when the whole herd swam the river. Most of them eventually swam back home—save one recalcitrant bull.
“I was walking the last big bull back,” says Entz. “When the bull saw the pickup trucks, you could just kind of see his eye get a little bit bigger. I started running next to him, doing the whole, ‘Yah, yah, you gotta go that way.’ And he didn’t want to have anything to do with it. So, I kind of gave up because I was looking at about 2,200 pounds of buffalo at that point, and he wasn’t happy.
“The truck, doing about 30, was trying to cut him off. That buffalo at a dead run jumped right over the back of the truck.”
During breeding season in mid- to late summer, the herds become restless. The bulls start bellowing and quarreling as they compete for females. The cows give birth usually to one calf a year. Buffalo can live about 20 years.
People who keep bison herds can work with the Washington Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory at Washington State University on pregnancy tests and tests for malignant catarrhal fever.
In 2003, the latter malady killed 825 bison in Idaho. Led by Naomi Taus, veterinary medical officer for the Pullman unit of the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service and a WSU faculty member, the WSU scientists realized the bison were exposed because they were close to a flock of sheep. They used the sheep as a way of culturing the virus, with hopes of developing a
While a vaccine has not yet been developed for malignant catarrhal fever, the ARS and WSU efforts have advanced the effort against a tough disease.
BISON PROVIDED MEAT AND HIDES for thousands of years to Native American tribes, and it still remains a great alternative to beef.
The majority of bison are raised for human consumption. The meat is generally considered very similar to beef in taste, but lower in fat and cholesterol and higher in protein. There’s even kosher buffalo meat available nationwide.
At the Kalispel Tribe, Francis Cullooyah, a tribal elder and Entz’s predecessor who brought in the buffalo in the 1970s, says the annual August powwow and buffalo barbecue give the Kalispel people a chance to enjoy the meat, along with huckleberries and other traditional foods.
“We usually butcher two animals and do a big traditional pit barbecue with roasts,” adds Entz.
Whether you cook up some bison roasts at home or you seek out a bison burger at a restaurant, you’re sure to enjoy it. Just remember to thank the early conservationists and Native Americans who saved an iconic animal over a century ago, and gave us the chance to relish and respect a truly original food of the continent.